Kobe Bryant's widow files lawsuit against helicopter company

Publish Date
Tue, 25 Feb 2020, 9:47AM
In this July 26, 2018, file photo former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna watch during the U.S. national championships swimming meet in Irvine. (Photo / AP)
In this July 26, 2018, file photo former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna watch during the U.S. national championships swimming meet in Irvine. (Photo / AP)

Kobe Bryant's widow files lawsuit against helicopter company

Publish Date
Tue, 25 Feb 2020, 9:47AM

Kobe Bryant's widow today sued the owner of the helicopter that crashed in fog and killed the former Los Angeles Lakers star and their 13-year-old daughter last month.

The wrongful death lawsuit filed by Vanessa Bryant in Los Angeles Superior Court said the pilot was careless and negligent by flying in cloudy conditions Jan. 26 and should have aborted the flight.

Pilot Ara Zobayan was among the nine people killed in the crash.

The lawsuit names Island Express Helicopters Inc. and also targets Zobayan's legal representative, listed only as "Doe 1" until a name can be determined.

Vanessa Bryant's lawsuit asserts that Zobayan was negligent in eight different ways, including failing to properly assess the weather, flying into conditions he wasn't cleared for and failing to control the helicopter.

The lawsuit was filed as a public memorial service for Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and all the victims, including Zobayan, was being held at the arena where Bryant played most of his career.

Calls to Island Express seeking comment were not answered and its voicemail was full.

The company issued a statement Jan. 30 on its website saying the shock of the crash had prompted it to suspend service until it was appropriate for staff and customers.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the crash into a hillside in Calabasas on the outskirts of Los Angeles County.

Bryant made her first public comments in an Instagram post three days after the crash claimed the lives of her husband, daughter and seven others as they travelled to a basketball tournament.

"We really want to listen to Vanessa, to the Lakers, and make sure that we have a chance and the right way to mourn together, as people have been doing spontaneously out on the streets in the next day or two," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said last week. "Laying him to rest will be something which we are here, ready to help support the family however, wherever and whenever."

Who were the victims?

The former Los Angeles Lakers star and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna died in the Jan. 26 crash. The other victims included John and Keri Altobelli and their teenage daughter Alyssa; Sarah Chester and her 13-year-old daughter Payton; Christina Mauser, an assistant coach on the girls' team Kobe Bryant coached and on which the young girls were teammates; and pilot Ara Zobayan.

The bodies of all nine had been recovered from the site by Jan. 28 and four — Kobe Bryant, John Altobelli, Sarah Chester and Zobayan — were identified through the use of fingerprints, the Los Angeles County medical examiner-coroner announced. On Jan. 29, office announced that the bodies of the other five victims, including Gianna and her two teammates, had been identified using what the medical examiner-coroner's office said was "round-the-clock testing and analysis of DNA." The medical examiner-coroner's office listed the cause of death for each as "blunt trauma" with the manner of death listed as "accident."

In a statement, Vanessa Bryant thanked "the millions of people who've shown support and love during this horrific time" in her first public comments since the tragedy. "I'm not sure what our lives hold beyond today, and it's impossible to imagine life without them," she wrote. "But we wake up each day, trying to keep pushing because Kobe, and our baby girl, Gigi, are shining on us to light the way."

Vanessa Bryant used the social media post to announce the creation of a MambaOnThree Fund, with all donations going to the other families affected by the tragedy. It was named for Team Mamba's mantra.

Why were they flying in a helicopter?

The eight passengers and one pilot were headed from John Wayne Airport in Orange County to Camarillo Airport near Bryant's Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, where Bryant was to coach his daughter's Team Mamba in a noon game in a tournament. Bryant often took helicopters to beat Los Angeles traffic and, with the academy as much as a three-hour drive from Bryant's home, the group boarded his usual chartered chopper with his usual pilot at the controls.

What went wrong?

The Sikorsky S-76B hit the hillside at a high speed, for reasons that investigators have not yet determined, and burst into flames. It crashed about 17 miles from the academy.

Why will a final report take so long?

The NTSB plans to issue a preliminary report in 10 days, Homendy said, although a final report with conclusions about the cause of the crash could take 18 months. Investigators will look at the helicopter maintenance records as well as debris; the pilot's experience and actions; the weather; and what officials call the "cascade of errors" that can occur as an emergency escalates, especially in foggy conditions like those prevalent on the morning of the crash.

Several days after the crash, the wreckage was catalogued and placed on a flatbed truck to be driven to an aircraft yard, reportedly in Phoenix, where the NTSB analyzes debris from accidents.

What do we know about the crash itself?

An NTSB investigator described the crash as "high energy," with the chopper, which was at 2,300 feet when the pilot last communicated with air traffic controllers, descending at a rate of more than 33 feet per second (23 miles per hour) at impact. It was traveling forward at about 152 mph just before the crash, according to a radar report by FlightAware. Debris was strewn across more than 500 feet on the hillside. The helicopter was not equipped with a terrain avoidance warning system or a "black box" of the type typical on airplanes. Neither fact is unusual, but the presence of both might have helped avert the crash or provide information about it. According to Homendy, the helicopter may have missed clearing the hill by 20 to 30 feet. An iPad with ForeFlight, an app pilots use to log flight plans and weather briefings, was on board and recovered by investigators.

Did the pilot make a critical mistake?

Zobayan could have landed at Burbank's airport, but that would have forced passengers to seek ground transportation the rest of the way. That's never an easy judgment call to make, especially when you're carrying a VIP.

"Psychologically, that's the hardest part," Kurt Deetz, a former Island Express pilot, told the Times. "Biting the bullet and saying, 'The weather's crap, I have to turn back.' It's hard to accept the fact you can't get the job done." Instead, pilots often continue on and even the most experienced can become disoriented if not relying on instruments when cloud cover thickens and obscures the horizon.

- AP, with Washington Post