Kobe Bryant Helicopter Lawsuit Details
Black Mamba's Los Angeles, California Helicopter Crash
UPDATE: As of the anniversary today, the Bryant lawsuit, along with those of surviving families is on hold, awaiting potential transfer from state court to federal court, at the behest of the U.S. Attorney, discussed below.
The facts relate that on June 26, 2020, helicopter pilot Ara Zobayan, passengers in tow, boarded a Sikorsky S-76B (N72EX). The Bryant party's helicopter departed Orange County, wheels up, steering a path to the Camarillo Airport helo tarmac. (See Google Images here). The Kobe Bryant ground transportation team was to deliver Bryant's party of eight by limousine to Bryant's Thousand Oaks Mamba Sports Academy, so they could watch Bryant's students compete playing early baseball academy games.
This same group flew incident-free to the same destination a day prior, and "Pilot in Command" (PIC) Zobayan flew NBA star, Bryant, using this route at least 10 times previously the last year. Aviation experts and others have many theories about who caused the Bryant party's helicopter crash, including inclement weather creating heavy clouds.
Kobe's surviving widow asserts the helicopter pilot was reckless and negligent. She claims the pilot operated the chopper dangerously, with a pilot error causing the Friday morning aerial disaster. Shining light on helicopter crash causation and future crash prevention was our goal in writing this wrongful death law piece.
Kobe Bryant's fatal helicopter crash caused painful nationwide shockwaves.
- Staples Center held a Lakers Fan tribute and vigil,
- Los Angeles Lakers basketball team members, Calabasas residents, friends, and fans worldwide mourned Kobe and Gianna Bryant at numerous remembrances and moments of silence.
- Mr. Donald Trump, while sitting as U.S. President, including former president Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, their first ladies, and even foreign dignitaries, paid Kobe great tribute.
This action was originally filed in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Los Angeles, and assigned case number 20STCV07492 (LEAD Case Related to Cases: 20STCV14963, 20SCTV14973, and 20STCV17897).
The all-star reputation of championship-winning basketball legend Kobe Bryant demonstrated basketball skills only Michael Jordan's fans had experienced circa 1980 and 1990. Our forever famous and beloved former Lakers star sought a quiet retirement filled with peace and serenity. But as most wrongful death attorneys will tell you, the only thing certain in life is death and taxes.
Surviving families will suffer excruciating torment, sad funeral memorial services, income, love, and consortium losses. An at-fault-party causing a loved one's helicopter-related death creates far more harrowing devastation for surviving family members than death from natural causes.
News of the surviving family's recent lawsuit brings back tragic memories over Kobe Bryant's death months into the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Our lawyers looked at text messages and communications between pilot, passengers, ground elements, forward air controllers, all shedding some light exposing that dreadful, dreary Sunday morning. We also researched helicopter crash topics highlighting critical helicopter travel weaknesses.
See Drone Video Of Bryant Helicopter Crash Scene
The Kobe Bryant Helicopter Accident Wrongful Death, Lawsuit
Kobe Bryant's post-crash saga took a surprising turn for air-traffic controllers and helicopter transport company flying the doomed excursion passengers. Bryant’s widow and successor in interest, Vanessa Bryant's lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, seeks a jury award of money damages from the helicopter company and Zobayan's estate. Her lawyers have asserted all along that these defendants failed to exercise heightened passenger care duty standards. Interestingly, she failed to name OC Helicopters as a defendant until later in the game.
- 2/24/2020 - Vanessa's Original Complaint alleges her husband and daughter's deaths were a "direct result" of common carrier Island Express Helicopters-Zobayan's "negligence" and "recklessness." (See Original Superior Court Complaint PDF here).
- inter alia, Vanessa's Los Angeles Superior Court complaint alleges defendants "permitted a flight with full knowledge that the subject helicopter was flying into unsafe weather conditions."
- There is no record of a responsive Answer being filed to Bryant's Original Complaint.
- 4/15/2020 - Vanessa Bryant filed her First Amended Complaint, including multiple counts covering wrongful death and survival action recovery theory. (See here).
- 5/08/2020 - Defendant Zabayan's Answer to Bryant's First Amended Complaint (View here).
- 5/11/2020 - Defendant, Island Express's Answer to Bryant's First Amended Complaint (View here).
- 6/19/2020 - MX transfer Zobayan (View here)
- 6/30/2020 - Plaintiff Altobelli and related cases filed their Notice of Related Case (View here).
- 8/14/2020 - IEX/Zobayan Cross-Complaint Against Air Traffic Controllers (View IEX Cross Complaint here).
- 8/20/2020 - Judge Keeny's Court Order Denying IEX/Zobayan's MX Transfer (View here).
- 9/18/2020 - Vanessa Bryant's Second Amended Complaint filed on 9/18/20 additionally named OC Helicopters as defendants, (See Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint).
- 9/18/2020 - Vanessa Bryant's Demurrer - without Motion to Strike Zobayan Cross-Complaint (View here).
- 10/01/2020 - US Attorney Notice of Removal (View here).
- 10/23/2020 - OC Helicopters filed their Answer to Plaintiff Vanessa Bryant's Second Amended Complaint. (See attached).
Related Kobe Byrant Family Cases?
- Bryant v. LA County Sheriff's Dept. Later, both Vanessa and another family filed separate false light claims seeking damages recovery. The families are claiming defamatory LA County Sheriff's deputies took gruesome photographs of the accident scene using their cell phones. These unsavory deputies published these images, causing the families emotional and financial harm, damaging these survivors.
- Mother in Law's Frivolous Lawsuit? It appears two newly minted attorneys went ahead and filed what appears to be a frivolous/specious lawsuit in the name of Kobe's mother in Law, seeking $5 million for babysitting her grandkids and helping around the house, described by Vanessa Bryant as "back pay," and an attempt to "extort a financial windfall." (Read more). The Torrance, California based law firm, Kra Legal PC's first lawyer, Kenichi R. Agu has a State Bar Number (SBN) of 279,846, and the second lawyer, Eric Sapir, has a California SBN of 282,740. Although the jury trial is scheduled for "05/22/2023 AT 09:00:00 AM IN C23 AT CENTRAL JUSTICE CENTER," it remains likely this case will be thrown out, because it is obvious to even a basically trained lawyer zero clear and convincing evidence of fraud exists. I for one am shocked that the court has not already tossed the in-law's case. Let's hope this law firm maintains a decent malpractice insurance carrier.
Public safety agents, common carriers, and private travel agencies will undoubtedly adopt stricter, safer regulations from the former champion's death. We hope the aftermath of this case results in changes avoiding a needless helicopter death of your close family member.
JOHN JAMES ALTOBELLI, AN INDIVIDUAL AND AS SUCCESSOR IN INTEREST TO ALYSSA ALTOBELLI, JOHN ALTOBELLI, AND KERI ALTOBELLI, ET VS ISLAND EXPRESS HELICOPTERS, INC., A CALIFORNIA CORPORATION, ET AL.
6/29/2020 - Answer Island Express.
8/19/2020 - IEX-Cross-Complaint.
11/04/2020 - Answer OC Helicopters.
CHRISTOPHER CHESTER, ET AL. VS ISLAND EXPRESS HELICOPTERS, INC., A CALIFORNIA CORPORATION, ET AL.
05/11/2020 - Complaint.
6/29/2020 - Answer Island Express - Chester State Court.
6/29/2020 - Answer Zobayan.
7/6/2020 - Amendment Adding OC Helicopters as a defendant. Amendment to Complaint (Fictitious/Incorrect Name).
8/19/2020 - Cross-Complaint.
MATTHEW MAUSER, AN INDIVIDUAL, AND AS SUCCESSOR IN INTEREST TO CHRISTINA MAUSER, ET AL. VS ISLAND EXPRESS HELICOPTERS, INC., A CALIFORNIA CORPORATION, ET AL.
04/20/2020 - Mauser Complaint.
6/29/2020 - Answer of Island Express.
6/30/2020 - Amendment to Complaint Adding OC Helicopters. (Fictitious/Incorrect Name).
8/19/2020 - IEX Cross-Complaint/Indemnity.
11/4/2020 - Answer OC Helicopters.
Why Is Island Express Cross Complaining Against Air Traffic Control?
Island Express Helicopters launched their own lawsuit. USA Today reported that Island Express is hanging its hat on the theory that air traffic controllers negligently refused the pilot's safer flight path request, failing to "...effectively communicate the situation during a shift change just before the crash." These defendants are cross-complaining against the air traffic controllers responsible for coordinating Bryant's foggy flight path. An attorney for Island Express reportedly claimed this was a "tragic accident," and he denied his client's culpability.
Plaintiff, Island Express Helicopter company alleges a "series of erroneous acts and omissions" by Southern California TRACON traffic controllers dropped the chopper from the sky during foggy conditions. Zobayan's estate and Island Express argue their passengers are owed nothing. These defendants assert dying or suffering severe injuries during flight were known risks associated with flying. These defendants claim the passengers assumed flying risks by volunteering to travel via helicopter.
"Tactically this was a brilliant move. This forced the hand of the U.S. Attorney, and will likely result in the entire Bryant Matter and related actions being consolidated in the far less plaintiff-friendly federal court system," said Los Angeles personal injury attorney, Michael Ehline.
What Are the Most Recent Issues Stemming From The Kobe Bryant Helicopter Crash Case?
Third-Party Cases Stemming From The NBA Star's Helicopter Accident:
Defamation/False Light - Bryant v. LA Sheriff
Vanessa's lawsuit alleges: "no fewer than 8 sheriff’s deputies at the crash site, pulled out their personal cell phones and snapped photos of the dead children, parents, and coaches. The deputies took these photos for their own personal gratification." "This lawsuit is about accountability," according to Bryant's lead counsel, Luis Li, "... preventing this disgraceful behavior from happening to other families in the future who have suffered loss."
A local citizen complained to the LA County for allowing a Sherriff's deputy to share disgusting cell phone crash scene images while he was visiting a Norwalk, California bar. However, Sheriff Alex Villanueva tried covering everything up, only agreeing to investigate after the Los Angeles Times exposed the cover-up, forcing Villanueva's hand.
Defamation/False Light -Mauser v. LA Sheriff
Matthew Mauser, the surviving husband of one of the decedents, sued the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, alleging that his three children and he underwent a damaging invasion of privacy, causing these plaintiffs emotional distress, anxiety, humiliating them "from the realization that photographs of their mother and wife were wrongfully taken, shown and discussed."
Governor Gavin Newsom of California recently signed legislation introduced by Mike Gipson (D) criminalizing activities by peace officers, including first responders from taking unauthorized photos of dead people at crime and accident scenes.
Vanessa Bryant's Mother's Backpay Lawsuit - Condemnation
Noted above, Sofia Urbieta Laine, then 68, filed her 48-page lawsuit claiming Kobe Bryant "promised to take care" of her for her remaining lifespan.
However, Vanessa Bryant denounced her mom's lawsuit, claiming her mother is not owed years of pay for working as an unpaid assistant, nor did Kobe promise her lifetime. The Los Angeles Times quoted Vanessa, writing that Kobe's mother in law was attempting to "extort a financial windfall."
Fire Captain Tony Imbrenda's Retaliation Lawsuit Over Kobe Crash Site Photos
The Los Angeles County Fire Department (FD) asserts 50-year-old Imbrenda's demotion stemmed from his failure to cooperate during the graphic crash scene photo investigations spurred by Vanessa's lawsuit against the County of Los Angeles. Imbrenda asserts his demotion violated his employment rights under California Government Code Section 3260, Government Code Section 3254, including Labor Code Section 1102.5.
Hence, he filed his employment retaliation lawsuit on 11/18/2020. However, the County appears to equate his refusal to give them his private property, as obstructing justice. His bosses say his demotion was based upon his knowledge Sheriff's deputies were being investigated for sharing gruesome images, spurring Bryant's Title 42 Section 1983 lawsuit. Captain Imbrenda's response was to alert firefighters who texted sent him crash area photos, soliciting these underlings to delete all crash scene images.
On June 17, 2020, The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released approximately 1,700 pages of documents, text messages, interview transcripts, emails, and crash studies. NTSB calculations and pictures illustrated the helicopter's trajectory. The fog obscured the hillside as the rotor winged aircraft crashed. The NTSB timeline illustrates the passenger's last moments before slamming into a fog-obscured Calabasas hillside, killing all nine people on board. A previous report by the NTSB didn’t find any engine or mechanical failure.
Genesis - The Day Before Kobe's Crash
Saturday, January 25, 2020 Text Messages
Before Island Express launched any Kobe Bryant (KB) flight, they transmitted a "KB group text." KB’s chauffeurs, including Patti and Ric from OC Helicopters, Whitney Bagge (IEX Vice President), KB's Pilot, and the rest of the KB air-ground team, received real-time texts, including flight and ground data. This texting system helped promote effective communication between the entire KB air-ground team. Key air-ground team players were text updated during lift-off, landing, communicating anticipated arrival times. Because of this, KB limo and SUV drivers awaiting at their designated locations were able to transition Kobe from air to ground transportation promptly.
Patti Taylor, the broker, arranging Bryant's flights and ground transport through OC Helicopters, reviewed the KB transportation plan.
- Change In Departure Times - Colloquy
"6:11 PM - Good Evening KB tomorrow Sunday, January 26, Please note requested revised departure 8:45 heli ready, 9:00 am departure, SNA CMA SNA N72EX Ara, Driver 1 Gary, Driver 2 Robert, Pax KB GB Et al. (full names weights given prior) Return approx. 3 pm-ish. Advised weather could be an issue…." - Patti Taylor
"Copy Will advise on weather early morning" - Pilot Zobayan.
"Weather look ok tomorrow?" - Patti Taylor.
"Just checked and not the best day tomorrow, but it is not as bad as today" - Pilot Zobayan.
Kobe changed his departure time from 9:45 a.m. take off to 9:00 a.m., to attend an earlier scheduled game in Thousand Oaks, returning at 3 p.m. that same day. The new batch of transportation records doesn’t draw any hard and fast conclusions about the helicopter crash. However, this evidence does provide a blow-by-blow account of Bryant’s last flight from Zobayan’s girlfriend. Evidence, including recordings, documents, transcripts, and statements from the S-76B mechanics, air traffic controllers, pilots, OC Helicopter and Island Express employees of the charter company and broker, Kobe's personal assistants, and crash eyewitnesses are incorporated by reference in the extensive review.
Sunday, January 26, 2020 Text Messages
Based upon a series of text messages published by Associated Press (AP) and the LA Times, beginning Sunday morning, January 26, 2020, our experts developed their own timeline as follows:
Kobe Bryant and eight others boarded the helicopter, entering the cockpit from the Atlantic Aviation ramp pathway. The passengers included daughter Gianna Bryant, John Altobelli (veteran-head baseball coach at Orange Coast College), his wife Keri, their daughter Alyssa, Gianna's teammate, Sarah Chester, and her daughter Payton, who was Gianna's other teammate, and Christina Mauser, their assistant Coach.
Their helicopter navigated, referencing Interstate 5 Freeway, California, heading to Los Angeles, circling Glendale 12 minutes, finally hugging I-101 Thousand Oaks.
7:30 a.m. - "looking ok." - Pilot Ara George Zobayan
At 7:30 a.m. on January 26, 2020, pilot Zobayan triggered a group text when he explained the weather was:
- "looking ok" - Pilot Zabayan
- "Copy" - Patti Taylor
- "I’ll be at SNA in :30 for a report" - Rick Webb, OC Helicopters
8:10 a.m. - Taylor followed up about flight condition weather
- “Should be OK.” - Zobayan responding
- “I Agree.” - Rick Webb, OC Helicopters
8:39 a.m. – "Heli at OC Standing by" - Pilot Zobayan
Zobayan flew the S-76B helicopter from Long Beach Airport to John Wayne Airport, landing at 8:39 a.m., allegedly reviewing the upcoming flight with Webb, using the ForeFlight app.
- 8:55 AM - "Robert and I standing by at CMA and good morning" - Gary KB limo driver
- "Copy" - Patti Taylor
- 9:05 AM – "Hi Gary. FYI KB Backpack is in back. Up in 3" - Ric Webb
- "Copy" - Patti Taylor
9:06 a.m. - "Wheels up" - Broker Patti Taylor
Broker Patti Taylor messaged the transportation team, texting the Sikorsky S-76B was "wheels up." Zobayan flew northwest.
9:33 a.m. - "Just started raining lightly here" - Gary, Camarillo Airport Tarmac Based Limousine Chauffeur
Gary, the limo driver, sent a text at 9:33 a.m., stating it "Just started raining lightly here," around 9:33 a.m., while he was parked at Camarillo Airport, awaiting the helicopter’s final destination.
9:44 a.m. - "Uh, we climbing to 4,000" - Pilot Ara Zobayan
At 9:44 a.m., Zobayan told the air traffic controller he was flying in thick clouds, west of Van Nuys, signaling his wish to climb, stating:
- "Uh, we climbing to 4,000."
- "And then what are you gonna do when you get to altitude" - Air Traffic Control
Air traffic control received no answer to their question, asking multiple times. We know the aircraft slammed into a mountain near Las Virgenes Road, experts estimating the bird fell from the sky amid dense fog, slamming into a steep mountainside near the 4200 block of Las Virgenes Road and Willow Glen Street around 9:45 a.m.
9:48 a.m. "Land?" - Patti Taylor - Broker, OC Helicopters
"Land?" another broker employee texted at 9:48 a.m., three minutes after the flight had been scheduled to arrive.
At 9:49 a.m., Patti Taylor texted Whitney Bagge, asking him for the IEX the helicopter's coordinates, with Spidertrack's aircraft tracking application offlining at 9:45 a.m., despite the IEX vice president constantly refreshing the tracker. Bagge snapped a cell phone screenshot of Kobe's flight circling Glendale, making Taylor believe there was a mere delay in flight traffic.
9:50 a.m. "Not yet" - Gary, Camarillo Airport Limo Driver
Gary, the driver group texted, "Not yet." After team members failed to receive updates for an uncomfortable thirteen minutes of radio silence, the die had been cast; lives were lost.
Taylor explained later her thought process that day to investigators, stating: "It looks like he got held up in airspace or Kobe wanted to look at something over there, which wasn’t uncommon."
She prayed the tracker was just broken but told Angel Perez, the Island Express ground operations manager, to pull its emergency response manual.
Ric Webb later told NTSB investigators:
- "Patti [O.C. Helicopters] was extremely concerned."
- "The drivers said, 'Is the helicopter there? Where is the helicopter?'"
- Zobayan group messaged "landed" once he was on the ground, with Kobe's ground. Kobe's ground transport messaged "passengers on board," They sent a final destination text soon after.
10:00 a.m. - Zobayan's Girlfriend
After breaking slumber, Zobayan’s girlfriend texted Zobayan, but her transmission failed, raising her alarm.
10:02 a.m. “Ara, you okay” - Patti Taylor - Broker, OC Helicopters
- "Ara, you okay" - Patti Taylor
- The pilot didn’t respond.
10:22 a.m. Island Express Deploys Recon Chopper
Bagge texted Angel, "Go to the Emergency Response Manual now." - NTSB Report
At 10:22 a.m., Island Express instituted emergency response procedures, their manual requiring dispatch of a separate Island Express helicopter to Kobe's last known coordinates. ("...last location on the tracker for N72EX.") Still, five minutes later, that reconnaissance mission was canceled. Text and radio messages transmitted to Zobayan had by now fallen upon deaf ears, with Webb calling Angel expressing grave concern.
Kobe's driver and controllers at Camarillo Airport had not seen his helicopter. Ultimately, Dalton, who drove his automobile in Calabasas's direction, confirmed where electronic tracking had stopped after rumors of a helicopter crash.
10:27 AM – "I called Angel and told him to have N114MX turn around there is a confirmed airplane crash in the same area where N72EX’s tracker stopped. N114MX needs to go back to the hanger and shut down for the day. Cancel all remainder flights for the day, and Garret will call with instructions and with what else he needs to do." - NTSB Report.
Who Can Be Sued For Kobe's Wrongful Death? - Duty of Care
Anyone who owed Kobe and Gianna a particular duty of care during transport can be sued for Kobe's wrongful death. Duty of care owed depends on the status of the defendants, decedents, and suing parties.
CACI is California Judicial Council approved jury instructions derived from California statutes and codes. Our superior lawyers will cover CACI instructions rather than the older BAJI version still used by courts. Basically, these forms assist jurors, helping determine liability, including money damage calculations.
Whether or not Island Express Helicopters, brokers, and others transporting Kobe that fateful day owed any legal liability to Kobe's surviving family members depends primarily on three tort law principles:
- Vicarious liability - CACI No. VF-3700.
- Negligent Hiring, Supervision, or Retention of Employee - CACI No. 426.
- Negligent Entrustment of Motor Vehicle - CACI No. 724, CACI No. VF-704.
1. Vicarious Liability
Vanessa must convince the court that Island Express, including others exercising substantial control over the flight, is vicariously liable for the acts of their servant, Zobayan. Vanessa Bryant's lawyers must prove Ara Zobayan flew the Bryant party while pilot Zobayan was engaged in the course and scope of his employment duties under CACI No. 3720 [scope of employment]. She must also prove that Pilot Zobayan did not frolic or detour from his employment transportation duties. Here, the pilot flying is a task reasonably related to his employment responsibilities. (See also CACI No. VF-3700).
Defendant Island Express Helicopter company may argue flying duties performed by a helicopter pilot; Ara Zobayan remained independent from employment with IEX. IEX may seek a CACI No. 3704 instruction from the trial court, demanding a jury answer employment status questions.
How Will Vanessa Bryant Prove Helicopter Pilot Zoboyan's Employment Status?
Vanessa Bryant must prove Island Express vicarious liability by using a fact-based test. CACI No. 3704 says you are not an independent contractor if a plaintiff can prove one or any of the below facts:
- Did IEX supply Zobayan with equipment, tools, and place of work?
- Was Zobayan paid by the hour rather than by the job?
- If Island Express regularly transported helicopter passengers, was the helicopter pilot transporting Island Express passengers?
- Was Zobayan engaged in a distinct occupation or business or not?
- Was IEX closely supervising or directing Zobayan's work. Did the helicopter pilot specialize in flying passengers independently from IEX?
- Did Zobayan require specialized or professional skills to perform his work?
- Were pilot services performed through long periods or short time periods?
- Did Island Express and Zobayan believe that they had an employer-employee relationship?
Ehline Law Firm thinks evidence shows Zobayan acted as IEX's employee, so the court will probably let a jury decide fault using vicarious liability theory.
2. Negligent Supervision/Hiring/Retention
"Liability for negligent supervision and/or retention of an employee is one of direct liability for negligence, not vicarious liability." (Delfino v. Agilent Technologies, Inc. (2006) 145 Cal.App.4th 790, 815).
Vanessa has a decent argument that Island Express and others negligently supervised Zobayan since they permitted heavy fog flying. Here, Vanessa will argue Zobayan was incompetent or unfit to fly that day, making Island Express' poor supervision and hiring a substantial factor causing Kobe and Gianna's wrongful death.
Based upon the facts so far, we don't see any solid evidence that Zobayan had a custom, habit, or practice of flying in risky, bad weather. On the other hand, evidence exists showing IEX left Zobayan's decision to fly in bad weather to Zobayan alone. Therefore, this instruction may also be used in determining party liability.
3. Negligent Entrustment of a Motor Vehicle is another theory Vanessa could use since the helicopter is a motorized vehicle. Arguably, it wasn't very responsible for OC Helicopters and IEX to allow flying in a heavy fog. Not enough facts exist here to make this determination.
What Duty Of Care Was Owed By Island Pacific and Zoboyan?
1. Ordinary Negligence - General, Lesser - Ordinary Duty of Care
For example, friends or family members transporting you in a car, not for hire, will owe all passengers and road users a basic duty of care, behaving reasonably, without exposing others to harm. (See also CACI No. 401).
2. Common Carrier Liability - Heightened, Greater Duty of Passenger Care
For you to understand duties owed by common carriers, you must know their unique legal classification.
What is a "Common Carrier"?
The term "common carrier" means and refers to companies and people transporting passengers for hire, including:
- A limousine chauffeur,
- A taxicab driver, or "cabbie,"
- An Uber Black SUV, limo bus, or other stretched vehicle driver and their bosses,
- An airline, including their aircraft pilot,
- A cruise line company, and their supervising employers.
Basically, any livery or carriage service transporting human beings is likely classified as a common carrier. Typically, these for-hire livery businesses will be subject to greater passenger care duties.
CACI No. 902. "Duty of Common Carrier" - "Common carriers must carry passengers [or property] safely. Common carriers must use the highest care and the vigilance of a very cautious person. They must do all that human care, vigilance, and foresight reasonably can do under the circumstances to avoid harm to passengers [or property]. While a common carrier does not guarantee the safety of its passengers [or property that it transports], it must use reasonable skill to provide everything necessary for safe transportation, in view of the transportation used and the practical operation of the business."
Cruise ship and aircraft transport common carriers will owe their passengers differing duties than land-based carriers using public roads will owe. Although trip tickets and waivers within passage contracts can limit certain carrier liabilities, both public and private common carriers will fail to escape specific legal duties no matter the contract's terms.
A common carrier's special/heightened duties to a passenger will include:
- Safeguarding a passenger's luggage, like Kobe's backpack,
- Preventing an injury or a death,
- Treating and caring for a passenger injured during transportation,
- Bailment agreement protection, etc.
Note: Passengers on luxury cruises can hold an ocean-going passenger ship strictly liable for injuries inflicted by the ship's crewmembers, including passenger rape and sexual assault cases arising from supervised shore excursion activities. The cruise ship captain must be held responsible for his crew members' bad acts under strict liability theory. (Read more).
Island Express Helicopters and their helicopter pilot, Ara Zobayan, transported passengers and carried luggage. Hence, these defendants will be deemed common carriers, barring the defendant's discovering additional facts avoiding this greater duty.
CACI No. 905. Duty of Common Carrier Toward Minor Passengers
A common carrier voluntarily accepting a child as a passenger must provide additional care reasonably and necessarily calculated to ensure the child’s safety. "In this instruction, the court admonished the jury that a carrier of passengers owes to children who are passengers on its cars a greater degree of care than it owes to adults. Such an instruction is proper." (Mudrick v. Market Street Ry. Co. (1938) 11 Cal.2d 724, 734).
Who is Allowed To Sue For Kobe Bryant's Hillside Helicopter Collision
Money damages surrounding Kobe and Gianna Bryant's death will only be awarded to a survivor listed in California's wrongful death statute, including.
- Domestic partner/civil partner,
- Adopted child,
- Other parties granted legal rights.
CACI No. 3921. Wrongful Death (Death of an Adult)
If the jury favors Vanessa Bryant's side by awarding her wrongful death damages against Island Express Helicopters et al., these triers of fact must still determine reasonable compensation using CACI No. 3921 because Kobe died after reaching adulthood status. Although Vanessa's burden will fall below proving her exact damages amounts to the trier of fact, the trial judge will bar damages calculation methods involving a hunch, guess, or those methods calling for speculation.
Again, CACI helps the jury objectively calculate reasonable dollar amounts valuated as foreseeable, certain, and unavoidable consequences stemming from Kobe's helicopter crash, ultimately causing the plaintiff's suffering and losses from a wrongful death.
Vanessa and other plaintiff's damages for Kobe's death will fall into two categories as follows:
- Economic damages (Here, the NBA star was raking in millions in endorsements alone - all gone with Kobe's death)
- Noneconomic damages
Wrongful Death Economic Damages Include:
- Lost past, present, and future financial support Kobe Bryant would have contributed his family during his or the survivor's life expectancy, whichever is shorter;
- The loss of past, present, and future gifts or benefits Vanessa would have expected to receive from Kobe;
- Kobe's Funeral and burial expenses; and
- The reasonable value of household services that Kobe would have provided like doing dishes, taking out the trash, etc.
However, any future economic damages award must be reduced to present cash value.
Vanessa Bryant's Wrongful Death Non-Economic Damages Will Include Compensation For:
- Losing Kobe’s past, present, and future love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, moral support;
- Her loss of the enjoyment of sexual relations;
- Future training and guidance Kobe would have provided Vanessa over her actuarial life.
CACI No. VF-3905, dealing with damages for Wrongful Death (Death of an Adult), contains a section listing specific dollar calculation amounts alongside each item of damages, so the math is made easier for jurors.
Vanessa Bryant's non-economic damages must be paid promptly upon judgment without being further reduced to present cash value. Defendants may argue that Vanessa Bryant should be entitled to little general damages, asserting she remained in a marriage of convenience, pointing to Kobe's extramarital activities and Vanessa's petition for marital dissolution here. But Vanessa will likely argue she reconciled with Kobe, and that was water under the bridge.
CACI No. 3922. Wrongful Death (Parents’ Recovery for Death of a Minor Child)
Vanessa may also seek reasonable compensation for the death of her child, Gianna's, including compensation covering:
1. Past present and future economic losses amounting to the value of lost financial support, gifts, or benefits, including the reasonable value of decedent's household services, if any, contributed during the life expectancy Gianna had before her death or the life expectancy of Vanessa Bryant, whichever is shorter. Gianna's funeral and burial expenses, including contributions Vanessa could have expected Gianna to provide, reduced to present cash value, will be included in Vanessa's award of economic damages without reducing present future care values.
2. Past, present, and future non-economic losses, amounting to the value of lost love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, and moral support, will not be reduced to present cash value.
Vanessa Bryant's Survival Action
A Code Civ. Proc. Sec. 377.30 survival action is included in the Vanessa Bryant lawsuit seeking damages on behalf of decedent Kobe and Gianna for their own deaths. Vanessa's "wrongful death" claim only will compensate her direct losses and suffering. A survival cause of action will normally be filed when a decedent fails to die immediately after their accident or injury, but sometimes decedent surviving a short period suffices in allowing the claim forward. However, even living just a few seconds before death may form the basis for a survival cause of action.
Can Vanessa Get Paid For Kobe's Pain And Suffering?
- Decedent's pain, suffering, and disfigurement (unless for certain elder abuse claims) are barred as recoverable damages amounts under the survival action statute. (Code Civ. Proc., § 377.34; see Quiroz v. Seventh Ave. Center (2006) 140 Cal.App.4th 1256, 1265; see also instructions in the 3100 Series, Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act).
CACI No. 3903Q - Survival Damages (Economic Damage) (Code Civ. Pro. § 377.34)
Vanessa seeks damages that Kobe and perhaps Gianna sustained before death these two were entitled to recover, including:
- Penalties, or punitive damages,
- Reasonable, necessary costs of medical care received by decedents,
- Lost income/earnings/salary/wages before decedents' deaths,
- Reasonable health care service costs decedents would have provided any survivors.
A survival cause of action can be filed by the estate’s personal representative, or if none has been appointed, by the decedent’s successor-in-interest. Damages recoverable under the statute include "the loss or damage that the decedent sustained or incurred before death, including any penalties or punitive or exemplary damages that the decedent would have been entitled to recover had the decedent lived, and do not include damages for pain, suffering, or disfigurement."
Basically, the California survival statute allows the estate's conservator or other interested parties to "step into the shoes" of the deceased and recover the damages. (County of Los Angeles, 21 Cal. 4th at pp. 303-304, internal citations omitted) Here, Vanessa will seek the damages her deceased husband and child would have been entitled to have they survived, including medical costs and lost wages, penalties, and exemplary, punitive damages.
Did Zobayan Breach His Heightened Duty of Care?
The NTSB post-crash incident report contains sections dealing with 'calculated apparent angles.' Aviation experts at the NTSB believe the evidence shows Kobe Bryant's helicopter pilot, Ara Zobayan's decision to fly in bad weather, including a heavy fog bank, tend to show "Mr. Pilot Man" [Bryant's affectionate nickname for his favorite pilot] 'misperceived both pitch and roll angles.'
The NTSB’s aircraft performance study said the helicopter banked left and away from the 101 while communicating with the controller. When Zobayan said the helicopter was climbing, it was actually descending. According to the study, the pilot "could have misperceived both pitch and roll angles."
“When a pilot misperceives altitude and acceleration, it is known as the 'somatogravic illusion' and can cause spatial disorientation," the report said. In other words, acceleration could cause a pilot to sense his vehicle was climbing when it was not.
As previously reported, Kobe Bryant’s pilot Ara Zobayan wanted to climb higher while hovering about 100 feet above the ground. In mitigation, the same group had flown without incident to the same destination a day earlier — and Zobayan flew Bryant on the route at least 10 times last year.
What Does The NTSB Crash Site Report Say?
Interviews conducted by crash investigators and Zobayan's colleagues described the chief pilot for Island Express as:
- Thoughtful enough to purchase a new drill for one of the company’s mechanics as a surprise, including diapers for the child of another employee,
- Waking up around 6 a.m. daily, without using his alarm clock,
- Rarely drinking alcohol,
- Having more than 8,500 hours of flight time,
- The Bryant family's favorite,
- Tess Davidson, Zobayan’s girlfriend of seven years, told investigators that Zobayan reviewed weather conditions through an iPad app called "ForeFlight" the evening prior. She told the NTSB people that Zobayan canceled charter flights with zero hesitation; his helicopter grounded routinely when poor weather conditions presented themselves. (“He would not be pressured into flying”).
- According to investigators, Island Express canceled 150 flights because of the weather last year, with cancellations involving high-profile clients, including Kylie Jenner, Kobey Bryan, Clippers star Kawhi Leonard, and more. ("There were often where perhaps we had to fly [Bryant] one way but couldn’t fly him back due to weather that came in or had to cancel or had to delay it."
- "Ara could never be pressured to fly if it wasn’t correct." - Patti Taylor
- Two days prior to Bryant's helicopter crash, bad weather forced 13 other flight cancellations.
- Kurt Deetz, Bryant's other former pilot, told investigators Bryant left flying during bad weather decisions to the pilot because "he [Kobe] assumed you’re doing your job."
- Actor Lorenzo Lamas, also a former Island Express pilot, recounted Zobayan's transportation protocols for Bryant's Thanksgiving flight, heading to San Bernardino International Airport. (All statements exhibited Zobayan was a safe pilot; Zobayan went the extra mile for Bryant, flying Bryant back to Santa Ana, California based John Wayne Airport after he forgot a "stuffing" side dish).
- Island Express VP, Whitney Bagge, told investigators Zobayan and Bryant became good friends.
- Patti Taylor explained that Bryant trusted Zobayan "with his girls and family, which was paramount to him," with interactions between the parties being "very warm and friendly and joking."
- "He [Zobayan] swiped his finger that he was going to go east and north of the clouds," and "At no time did he imply or show that he was going to go in the clouds." - Mic Webb
- Zobayan received ground control permission, allowing him to fly under the flight following radar, normally a violation of FAA regulations allowed here assuming Zobayan avoided obscuring clouds, maintaining clear visibility up to half a mile away.
- However, Ara Zobayan decided to climb to a higher altitude. He was determined to launch 4000 feet vertically instead of the 2400 feet needed for better sight.
- Experts said that climbing 500 vertical feet of clouds meant 'deliberately' breaking Visual Flight Rules. Investigators proclaimed flying up and into a cloud layer is illegal because disasters become more frequent without ground reference points. Here, the pilot became disorientated during the vertical transition.
- News reports also reveal that nine months ago, Ara Zobayan had received proficiency training in 'inadvertent entry into instrument meteorological conditions and unusual altitude recovery." Moreover, Zobayan's unusual altitude recovery caused the helicopter crash. (The NTSB’s report addressing operational factors and human performance indicated that 'Evidence ... pilot receiving a weather briefing from an approved source could not be determined.")
Kobe Bryant Helicopter Crash And Crash Site
- The Fire
LA County's Fire Chief, Daryl Osby, stated the crash caused a fire, spreading a quarter of an acre before extinguishing.
- Debris Field
Jennifer Homendy, a National Transport Safety Board member, said helicopter pieces were scattered across a 600 feet area.
- Pictures showed the hillside crash location. Published images show the chopper's tail down and left, its fuselage resting oppositely, its main rotor landing around a hundred yards away.
- A witness emailed the NTSB typing: "there was zero visibility past the point where I saw it disappear into the low cloud at the trailhead," and she “found it peculiar they flew directly into heavy clouds so close to hills …"
- Another witness emailed the agency: "We heard the helicopter flying normally but couldn’t really see it because it was extremely foggy and low clouds. I was thinking to myself of why a helicopter would be flying so low in terrible weather conditions. Then, all of a sudden, we heard a large BOOM."
- According to Los Angeles County coroner’s office, all bodily remains were released to the families. Previously, Kobe Bryant's body and three others (Ara Zobayan, John Altobelli, and Sarah Chester) were identified. National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) officials examined the bodies before releasing them to families.
The Jury Returns
Juries will only return their verdict after knowing the facts. A jury will hear and review testimony, discuss the law, including evidence, and determine witness credibility.
Moreover, these triers of fact must decide duty owed and whether the breach of that duty was a substantial factor causing an injury, including whether the widow's and decedent's survival action damages are reasonable.
We already know the pilot breached FAA rules by trying to fly up through the clouds without a half-mile or more of visibility, raising a high likelihood the jury here will find the defendants are liable to pay Mrs. Bryant. And although aviation laws did not require IEX to maintain a terrain awareness warning system (TAWS), warning PIC Zobayan pilots he was flying too close to obstacles, a jury may find it was negligent to not have such a system for this particular, foggy flight path so often flown by Kobe.
Because it appears IEX and their pilot will be presumptively at fault under negligence per se doctrine, these defendants may seek bifurcation. A court will use this technique so that it can split liability and damages. That way, if the jury finds defendants liable, parties can negotiate damages. The goal is resolving disputed dollar amounts on the courthouse steps. (See California Rules of Court, Rule 5.390. Bifurcation of issues).
Island Pacific Helicopters would be smart to stipulate to liability here. Bifurcating damages from liability helps defendants see if a jury will use California's pure comparative negligence doctrine to apportion a percentage of fault to the plaintiff's or another party, including air traffic controllers.
Defendants' stipulating to 100% liability may make sense, but bifurcating could see jurors find the defendant's only partially at fault in trial one. However, even if defendants are found fully at fault, they will retain the option to settle. Now, both defendants can avoid trial two's damages phase, and plaintiffs can obviate a court remittitur, with a judge reducing a "runaway verdict."
A Lawyer's Perspective - What This Means For The Future Of The Bryant Cases:
My many years in the legal field remind me that helicopter crash cases have not seen their end. The wrongful death lawsuit against the flight controllers tips the iceberg in a coming, messy, legal flurry. I don't usually comment extensively on cases where I maintain no personal involvement. Still, I will present a bird's eye view covering critical legal issues at play, allowing consumers a better legal explanation and unique understanding of past and future cases.
The helicopter accident lawyers at Ehline Law Firm represent air travel risk victims, especially where a comedy of errors, misjudgments, and fire combined to cause a crash, seminal to the mishap ultimately killing the Black Mamba. The County must manage this distributed responsibility. A jury may find responsible parties liable to pay for the harm caused by Kobe Bryant's helicopter crash. Hopefully, Angeleno's seeking to avoid similar tragedies won't need our superior injury lawyers, but if so, we will help devasted, suffering consumers experiencing a loved one's death understand a helicopter accident's many twists and turns.
We just shined a light on helicopter crash causation and future crash prevention, which was our goal. For the author, the death of Kobe Bryant was personal. Born and raised in the Los Angeles area, managing attorney Michael Ehline leads this charismatic team at Ehline Law Firm Personal Injury Attorneys, APLC, specializing in helicopter transport accident cases. Ehline served as a transport safety lobbyist, working with Congress, passing valuable cruise ship safety legislation more than a decade ago, continuing his mission to make our nation's roads, ships, and aircraft safer.
Michael's mission remains personal for Ehline both as a husband and father, and personal injury lawyer, with safety's failure hitting close to home. He sees how the Kobe Bryant crash took such a terrible toll on Bryant's family, giving Ehline a soapbox to stand on, preaching future helicopter and death accident claims.
Ehline studied the current case forward and backward from any perspective, helping better protect prospective air travel customers. As a former United States Marine, Ehline maintains respect and awe for helicopters, knowing their raw power and potential for fast and safe travel-- and terrible crashes as we saw in January.
Ehline writes these columns to inform the public better and hopefully safeguard us from future accidents and crashes. Our team works tirelessly on cases such as this, and we have won hundreds of transport crash cases, winning millions for seriously injured clients. If you wish to learn more about the types of cases we take on, read our website here, and keep reading the article below. Clients seeking to reach Michael or his team can call the number below or email Michael directly by calling email@example.com.
- Index of NTSB Crash Investigation Evidence https://www.ntsb.gov/Pages/Search.aspx?k=island%20express
- Ehline Law website: Personal Injury Cases We Take
- USA Today: Helicopter company in the crash that killed Kobe Bryant sues air traffic controllers
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