Federal Government Must Face Helicopter Operator’s Claims in Bryant Crash Lawsuit

Kobe Bryant’s widow Vanessa sued the helicopter flight operator claiming they failed to ensure the pilot and the craft were flight-ready. The operator argues two flight controllers share the blame.

Former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna watch the U.S. national championships swimming meet in Irvine, Calif., in 2018. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson, file)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The federal government must face claims it negligently trained two Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers who supported the helicopter pilot in the moments before a crash that killed basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven other passengers last year, a judge ruled Monday.

NBA Lakers legend Bryant, 13-year-old Gianna and seven other passengers died in the Jan. 26, 2020, helicopter crash in the Santa Monica Mountains north of downtown LA. The group had been headed to a youth basketball practice at Bryant’s facility.

Federal investigators later determined the pilot likely became spatially unaware as he flew through low clouds and into a Southern California hillside.

Bryant’s widow Vanessa filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court on April 15, 2020, claiming Island Express Helicopters and Island Express Holding Corp. negligently operated the flight and failed to ensure the helicopter was flight-ready.

Bryant claimed pilot Ara Zobayan — who also died in the crash — flew directly into unsafe weather conditions and was authorized to do so by the company operating the flight.

Zobayan’s negligent conduct in piloting the flight directly resulted in the deaths of Bryant, his daughter and the other passengers, the complaint said.

Attorneys for the helicopter company filed a cross complaint seeking indemnification and arguing the two flight controllers supporting Zobayan — Kyle Larsen and Matthew Conley — were negligent and shared the blame for the crash. The company wanted the pair added to the lawsuit as cross-defendants.

The federal government was added to the case as a defendant — and the matter removed to federal court — after the U.S. Attorney General’s office certified that Conley and Larson’s actions fell within the scope of employment with the Federal Aviation Administration.

In a motion to dismiss the cross complaint, Justice Department attorneys argued the claims should be dismissed under the derivative jurisdiction doctrine since the state court lacked jurisdiction over them and the federal court acquired none after removal.

In a 5-page ruling Monday, U.S. District Judge Fernando M. Olguin granted the federal government’s motion to dismiss Island Express’ declaratory relief claim but denied the rest of the bid to toss the cross complaint. 

Olguin wrote in the ruling that the claims are governed by the Federal Tort Claims Act and that his court retains jurisdiction even if the state court doesn’t.

“Thus, while the government may be correct that state courts lack jurisdiction over FTCA actions, it does not follow that the state court lacked jurisdiction over the instant action prior to certification and removal,” Olguin wrote. “In short, the court finds that the derivative jurisdiction doctrine does not apply under the circumstances of this case.”

Olguin denied the federal government’s motion to remand the case to state court and ordered the government to reply to Island Express’ complaint by May 14.

Attorneys for the parties did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

After an initial probe of the crash site and wrecked craft, National Transportation Safety Board investigators said they found no sign of engine failure in debris from the helicopter.

After completing their investigation, the NTSB said Zobayan indicated to air traffic controllers before the crash he was trying to climb above the clouds when his flight instruments showed he was rapidly descending.

The error in the pilot’s reporting showed he experienced “spatial disorientation” during the flight, the agency said.

The other passengers who died in the tragic crash were Payton Chester and her mother, Sarah Chester; Jon, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli; and Christina Mauser.

The Altobelli and Mauser families filed separate wrongful death suits against Island Express Helicopters and the holding corporation claiming carelessness, negligence and unlawful conduct.

Bryant also filed a lawsuit last year against Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva claiming his agency knew deputies shared photos of the helicopter crash site where her husband and daughter were killed.

According to the complaint filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, deputies shared the photos with their colleagues and with strangers, including at a bar where a bartender later told officials she witnessed an officer flaunt the photos to a waitress.

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