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Los Angeles Times - August 21, 2020

Wrongful death lawsuits prompted by Kobe Bryant copter crash to remain in L.A. County

BY NATHAN FENNO

The lawsuit by Vanessa Bryant over the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others will remain in Los Angeles County after a judge rejected arguments by a defendant that a fair trial isn’t possible in the county because of the former Lakers star’s popularity.

Attorneys representing the estate of Ara Zobayan, the helicopter’s pilot who died in the accident, had moved to change the venue to Orange County, where Bryant resided for almost two decades, or another jurisdiction.

“Defendant gives the court no basis for determining whether there is another ‘near’ or accessible court other than Orange County where Bryant might be less well known or admired,” L.A. County Superior Court Judge Virginia Kenny wrote in a five-page minute order filed Wednesday. “The court cannot throw darts at a map to try to identify a county that is both nearby and accessible to the parties and witnesses, but that does not suffer from the same exposure to Kobe Bryant because of his fame as a sports star.”

The judge seemed perplexed by the attempt to relocate the trial to Orange County, noting that the county’s board of supervisors designated Aug. 24 as “Kobe Bryant day in ‘perpetuity,’ further evidence of Bryant’s singular renown and popularity in that county.”

Vanessa Bryant is suing Zobayan’s estate, Island Express Helicopters and Island Express Holding Corp. over the crash in Calabasas on Jan. 26 that killed her husband and their 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. Three other wrongful death lawsuits have been filed against Island Express on behalf of six other crash victims: John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli; Sarah and Payton Chester; and Christina Mauser.

In the motion to change the venue filed in June, Arthur Willner, an attorney for Zobayan, wrote that “Kobe Bryant was so ingrained in Los Angeles that Defendant will be hard-pressed to find an Angelino who is not familiar with the incident to put in the jury box” and the defendant can’t receive a fair trial in the county.

“No other single individual in recent memory, sports figure or otherwise, has been considered by the people to be such a personification of their city of Los Angeles,” the motion said. “But with that unprecedented level of acclaim comes a lack of impartiality and objectivity by potential jurors about the merits under the law of the claims asserted in this lawsuit by the Bryant family.”

The motion proposed Orange County as an alternative, saying, “… the level of Laker fan following does not even approach what exists in Los Angeles County and would provide a much more fair and impartial jury pool.”

Attorneys for the Bryant family assailed the attempt in a court filing earlier this month that was joined by plaintiffs from the three other lawsuits.

“Defendant fails to acknowledge the extent to which Kobe Bryant’s legacy penetrates American culture; there is no county line at which Kobe Bryant’s celebrity suddenly evaporates,” Gary C. Robb, the lead attorney for the family, wrote in the filing. “Public esteem for Kobe Bryant is a fact of American life, and Defendant cannot demonstrate, as he must, that there is any county where the basis for his objection — Mr. Bryant’s popularity — does not exist.”

The filing said Bryant was “especially popular” in Orange County.

The Zobayan attorneys pushed back in a response filed earlier this week: “Kobe Bryant was not the face of Orange County. He did not play for the ‘Orange County’ Lakers. … The ‘objection or cause’ for this motion is his outsized identified with Los Angeles (and only Los Angeles).”

The judge didn’t buy the arguments, saying in the minute order that Zobayan’s attorneys didn’t demonstrate they would face “actual prejudice” in Los Angeles or that there is any county in which the trial could be held where Bryant’s fame wasn’t an issue.

“The court is confident that there will be many jurors who do not identify Bryant as the ‘face of Los Angeles,’” Kenny wrote. “It is also a sad truth that the passage of time will also dim Bryant’s notoriety, further reducing the possibility of actual prejudice against or in favor of any of the parties in this case.”

The next hearing in the matter is scheduled for December.

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