Legal fallout of the deadly helicopter crash


USA TODAY Sports is marking the first anniversary of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others with a six-day series of stories, photos and videos looking back at the Lakers legend and the aftermath of his death.

On the day that more than 20,000 mourners packed into Staples Center to say goodbye to Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, the first lawsuit hit the docket in a Los Angeles County court.

In a 72-page complaint, Vanessa Bryant alleged that the helicopter crash in Calabasas, California – which left her husband, daughter and seven others dead – could have been avoided. She claimed the pilot, Ara Zobayan, had shown poor judgment during that Jan. 26 flight. And that his employer, Island Express Helicopters, should be held responsible for the tragic outcome.

“Plaintiffs’ deceased, Kobe Bryant, was killed as a direct result of the negligent conduct of Zobayan,” the complaint alleges, “for which Defendant Island Express Helicopters is vicariously liable in all respects.”

Vanessa Bryant weeps while delivering her speech during the memorial to celebrate the life of Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna Bryant at Staples Center on Feb 24, 2020.
Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Sports

Nearly one year later, that wrongful death lawsuit is at the center of an increasingly vast and complex web of litigation tied either directly or indirectly to the crash.

The families of the other victims have since joined Vanessa Bryant in suing the company that operated the helicopter. The helicopter company has countersued two air traffic controllers. Vanessa Bryant has sued Los Angeles County and its sheriff’s department. And she has been separately sued by her mother.

All told, the tangential legal fallout includes at least nine cases in state or federal court and at least 35 listed attorneys from a dozen firms – plus the U.S. Department of Justice.

Mark Geragos, attorney
I think it’s part of the legal and Hollywood/celebrity culture, that there would be lawsuits. And clearly, any time you’ve got a tragedy like this, somebody or something is going to be held accountable.

“I think it’s part of the legal and Hollywood/celebrity culture, that there would be lawsuits,” said attorney Mark Geragos, who has represented a number of high-profile clients and public figures. “And clearly, any time you’ve got a tragedy like this, somebody or something is going to be held accountable.”

Five of the lawsuits are interconnected, with the victims’ families seeking damages and alleging fault for the crash. Three others involve photos of the scene that were allegedly taken by Los Angeles County authorities. 

Attorneys representing a half-dozen parties in the assorted lawsuits – including Vanessa Bryant, the helicopter company and the pilot – either did not respond to requests for comment from USA TODAY Sports or declined to comment citing the pending litigation.

All the lawsuits remain in the early stages as the National Transportation Safety Board wraps up its investigation into the crash. The board has already released more than 1,800 pages of documents stemming from its probe and is slated to announce a probable cause for the crash at a meeting on Feb. 9.

Christopher Odell, a partner at the law firm Arnold & Porter, said the crux of the litigation – the families’ wrongful death claims – is not complicated as far as aviation crash matters are concerned. And that gives Vanessa Bryant and the other victims’ families some momentum, he said.

“It’s a fairly straightforward claim, right? ‘Our family members were passengers on the helicopter. The helicopter crashed. It’s your fault,’ ” said Odell, an expert in aviation litigation. “If you are the defendants, you have a much more complicated story that you’re going to need to tell.”

Lawsuits followed crash

Although the NTSB has yet to announce what might have caused the crash, the general facts have long been established.

On a foggy Sunday morning, Kobe Bryant and seven other passengers boarded a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter in Santa Ana, California, to zip up the coast to Thousand Oaks for a basketball game. The helicopter followed a highway north before dipping into the mountains near Calabasas, where the last thing the pilot said to air traffic controllers was that he was climbing above the clouds. Instead, the helicopter sped downward, crashing into a mountain bike park in the hills.

In early February, a preliminary NTSB investigation indicated that there was no evidence of engine failure in the crash.

A few weeks later, the lawsuits began.

Vanessa Bryant filed the first complaint against the helicopter company and the pilot on Feb. 24. The Altobelli, Chester and Mauser families – who also lost relatives in the crash – joined in with similar claims over the next three months. OC Helicopters, which described itself in a statement as a “travel agent and concierge for the Bryant family,” was later added as a defendant in the litigation.

The victims’ families argue, among other things, that Zobayan failed to properly assess the weather before taking off that morning and should have aborted the flight when he encountered the poor conditions. They also claim that Island Express Helicopters, which owned and operated the helicopter, is negligent because it did not have “an adequate safety policy for cancellation of flights into known unsafe weather conditions.”

Vanessa Bryant’s claims

Both the company and Berge Zobayan, the successor in the pilot’s estate, have argued in court filings that the victims understood and accepted the risks associated with the flight. OC Helicopters has said it had “no operational control” over the flight. 

In the fall, Island Express filed a countersuit against the federal air traffic controllers on duty that day, claiming that they should share blame for the crash. Odell described this as a strategic move, designed to spread the potential liability and also bring the federal government into the case – and get it moved from a state court in Los Angeles to a federal court.

Island Express Helicopters’ response

“Federal court proceedings tend to be more formal, they tend to move slower. … And there are additional layers of appellate review that might be available to you,” Odell explained. “So while it’s not universally the case, very often it’s part of the defendants’ playbook to try to get into federal court.”

That fight, over where the case should be heard, is ongoing and could continue for several months, Odell added.

The other key questions in the case moving forward revolve around fault and, on a more tedious level, insurance policies.

Robert Clifford, a Chicago-based attorney who specializes in aviation litigation, said Kobe Bryant’s lost earning power will likely lead to an “enormous” financial claim. But if the two sides ultimately settle before trial, it’s unclear how large that settlement would be – and how the money would be distributed.

“Typically, small commercial operators – they have insurance, but they don’t have billions of it, like Boeing,” Clifford said.

“If it ultimately comes to pass that there’s ‘only’ X number of dollars available to be divided, then the art form will be, how do you fairly divide that among the families?”

Vanessa Bryant faces suit by mom

As lawyers argue over procedural details in the wrongful death litigation, there have also been a number of tangential suits stemming from the crash, including three that involve photos allegedly taken at the site.

Vanessa Bryant and Matthew Mauser, whose wife, Christina, died in the crash, have each sued the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for invasion of privacy. They allege that officers took photos of the crash site – and the remains of the victims – on their personal cellphones, without any investigative reasons for doing so.

“One deputy even used his photos of the victims to try to impress a woman at a bar, bragging about how he had been at the crash site,” Vanessa Bryant’s lawsuit claims. 

Kobe Bryant, daughter Gianna, wife Vanessa and daughter Natalia attend a Connecticut-UCLA women's basketball game in Los Angeles in 2017.

Kobe Bryant, daughter Gianna, wife Vanessa and daughter Natalia attend a Connecticut-UCLA women’s basketball game in Los Angeles in 2017.
Reed Saxon, AP

Sheriff Alex Villanueva later ordered staff members to delete the photos, a move that Vanessa Bryant described as “a cover-up.” The department said Villanueva’s order was an attempt “to prevent the photographs from being publicly disseminated.” 

In a statement provided to USA TODAY Sports, the LASD said it had been advised by its legal team to limit its comments on the litigation.

“This crash was a devastating day for millions of people across the globe,” a department spokesperson said. “Our hearts go out to the nine victims’ families and their loved ones as we approach the anniversary of this tragic day.”

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson
This crash was a devastating day for millions of people across the globe. Our hearts go out to the nine victims’ families and their loved ones as we approach the anniversary of this tragic day.

Los Angeles County is also facing a separate lawsuit filed by Tony Imbrenda, a former public information officer at the county’s fire department. Imbrenda claims he was demoted after refusing to hand over his personal cellphone as part of an investigation into photos taken at the crash site. He denied taking any such pictures with his personal phone.

Then there’s the lawsuit involving Vanessa Bryant and her mother, Sofia Urbieta Laine. Laine claimed in court filings last month that Kobe Bryant had “promised to take care of (her) financially for the rest of her life” – describing it as an oral contract that Vanessa Bryant has, in Laine’s view, since breached. 

Vanessa Bryant’s claims

In a series of Instagram posts, Vanessa Bryant called her mother’s lawsuit “frivolous, disgraceful and unimaginably hurtful.”

“My mother is continuing to try and find ways to extort a financial windfall from our family,” she wrote.

For Geragos, it’s hardly surprising that even the peripheral litigation stemming from the crash has drawn a media spotlight, given Kobe Bryant’s star power and name recognition.

“I think you always have to think about that, any time you’ve got a high-profile case,” he said. “There’s just an insatiable desire by the public to get information. It’s almost naive to believe that somehow you can minimize it.”

NTSB report 'a critical milestone'

As the post-crash litigation continues to work its way through the courts, the next significant date is Feb. 9, when the NTSB will rule on the likely cause of the crash.

The NTSB’s findings are used to make safety recommendations, and the board’s conclusion on the cause of the crash is not admissible in court. But Odell nevertheless called it “a critical milestone” in wrongful death lawsuits, like those filed by the victims’ families.

“(The NTSB’s findings) give a lot of guidance to the parties,” he said. “… The jury can come out a different way than the NTSB on the facts, in terms of who is responsible. But the NTSB is very good at its job, and investigators are very experienced and highly trained, and they’ll probably get to the bottom of it.”

Scene of the hillside where the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant crashed in Calabasas, California, on Jan. 26, 2020.

Scene of the hillside where the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant crashed in Calabasas, California, on Jan. 26, 2020.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA TODAY Sports

Odell added that, following the NTSB’s announcement and a few more months of “procedural wrangling,” he would not be surprised if parties in the case reached a confidential settlement before trial.

Meanwhile, it’s possible that the crash – and the headline-generating litigation that has followed – could prompt meaningful change.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, for instance, has already signed a piece of legislation that criminalizes the unauthorized photography of deceased people at the scene of an accident or crime, as a direct result of the allegations at the Calabasas crash site.

Clifford said it’s possible that Vanessa Bryant could also use the crash, and the subsequent wrongful death lawsuits, as a vehicle to push for improved safety measures. He likened it to the two crashes of Boeing 737 MAX airplanes in 2019, which killed 346 people.

“It took those crashes to lead to some changes in design and regulation,” Clifford said. “A case like Kobe Bryant serves, and has potential, to do the same thing, from the perspective of advancing aviation safety.”

Contact Tom Schad at tschad@usatoday.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.





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