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Los Angeles Times - February 24, 2020

Vanessa Bryant sues helicopter operator over crash that killed Kobe Bryant, eight others

By Nathan Fenno
Los Angeles Times

As mourners gathered at Staples Center on Monday for a memorial service to celebrate the lives of Kobe and Gianna Bryant, attorneys for Vanessa Bryant filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the company that operated the helicopter that crashed last month, killing her husband, daughter and seven others.

The complaint in Los Angeles County Superior Court against Fillmore-based Island Express Holding Corp. and Island Express Helicopters alleges that pilot Ara Zobayan, who also died in the crash in Calabasas, failed “to use ordinary care in piloting the subject aircraft” and was negligent.

“Defendant Island Express Helicopters authorized, directed and/or permitted a flight with full knowledge that the subject helicopter was flying into unsafe weather conditions,” the lawsuit says.

Kobe Bryant, the complaint alleges, died “as a direct result of the negligent conduct of Zobayan” for which “the company is vicariously liable in all respects.”

The 27-count complaint, which also names Zobayan’s estate as a defendant, seeks compensatory and punitive damages. The amount isn’t specified.

Attorneys for Vanessa Bryant didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. Bryant is represented by Munger, Tolles & Olson and Kansas City-based Robb & Robb, which specializes in helicopter crashes.

Teri Neville, an attorney representing Island Express, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“This was a tragic accident,” Neville said in an email.

While flying to a youth basketball game at Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks on Jan. 26, the 1991 Sikorsky S-76B crashed into a hillside near Los Virgenes Road and Willow Glen Street amid dense fog.

A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board found no engine or mechanical failure. The agency’s probe of the crash is ongoing.

The lawsuit accuses Zobayan, Bryant’s longtime pilot, of several acts of negligence including failing to abort the flight, failing to monitor and assess the weather, and failure to keep a safe distance between natural obstacles and the helicopter.

The Federal Aviation Administration cited Zobayan in 2015 for violating visual flight rules minimums and the FAA operating certificate for Island Express limited its pilots to flying under visual flight rules, not conditions that necessitate the use of instruments.

“On information and belief, Defendant Island Express Helicopters employed Defendant Zobayan with conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others and authorized or ratified his wrong conduct, and itself engaged in conduct with malice, oppression, or fraud,” the complaint states.

The lawsuit alleges the company did not provide “adequate training and/or supervision” after the FAA citation “to ensure the negligent action did not re-occur” and claims it “promoted and engaged in unnecessary and needlessly risky means of transport under the circumstances.” The complaint also faults the company for not having “an adequate safety policy for cancellation of flights into known unsafe weather conditions.”

Another count in the lawsuit accuses Island Express of negligence for not installing a terrain alarm system in the helicopter. The system could have warned Zobayan he was nearing a hillside. Federal regulations didn’t require the helicopter to have the system.

Island Express suspended operations indefinitely following the crash. A previous version of the company’s website advertised the company as operating “the West Coast’s largest fleet of Sikorsky S-76 passenger aircraft, the most-trusted name in helicopters” and being family owned since 1986.

Zobayan was the chief pilot for Island Express, amassing more than 8,000 hours of flying experience.

“He was the guy you’d want in any kind of emergency situation,” Neville told The Times last month.

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