Vanessa Bryant files wrongful-death lawsuit against helicopter operator

Lakers legend Kobe Bryant was among nine people killed in a helicopter crash.
Lakers legend Kobe Bryant was among nine people who died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas on Jan. 26.
(Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

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 Island Express Helicopters and Island Express Holding Corp. alleges that pilot Ara Zobayan of Huntington Beach, who also died in the crash in Calabasas, failed “to use ordinary care in piloting the subject aircraft” and was negligent.

The lawsuit says the company’s “breach of its duty and negligence” caused injuries and damages and that the Bryants’ deaths were “a direct result of the negligent conduct of Zobayan,” for which the company is “vicariously liable in all respects.”

Vanessa Bryant, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal were among the speakers at a memorial service honoring the lives of Kobe and Gianna Bryant at Staples Center.

The 27-count complaint, which also names Zobayan’s estate as a defendant, seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. An attorney for Vanessa Bryant didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The 1991 Sikorsky S-76B helicopter crashed into a hillside amid dense fog Jan. 26 while flying to a youth basketball game at Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks. Zobayan and all eight passengers aboard died. A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board found no engine or mechanical failure.

The lawsuit accuses Zobayan, Kobe 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.

“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.

Island Express officials could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.

In the days after the crash, the company issued a statement expressing sorrow over the crash and noting that Zobayan was the company’s “chief pilot.”

“Ara has been with the company for over 10 years and has over 8,000 flight hours,” according to the company.

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

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

It adds that the company “promoted and engaged in unnecessary and needlessly risky means of transport under the circumstances.”

The company announced Jan. 30 that it had suspended its operations in the wake of the crash.

Nathan Fenno writes for the Los Angeles Times. City News Service contributed to this report.

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1:27 p.m. Feb. 24, 2020: This article was originally published at 10:51 a.m. and has been updated with additional information.