Kobe Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, filed a wrongful death suit in Los Angeles County Circuit on Monday against Island Express Helicopters, its holding company, and the estate of pilot Ara Zobayan. Vanessa Bryant is being represented by the Los Angeles mega-law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson and joined by the Kansas City aviation law firm of Robb & Robb, which specializes in helicopter accidents. Robb & Robb has secured large settlements from a variety of helicopter crashes including $100 million for the survivor of the crash of an Air Methods Airbus AS350 B3e near Frisco, Colorado in 2015. Neither firm returned AIN’s request for comment.
The suit does not specify damages, but charges the helicopter operator and the pilot with 27 negligence and fraud-related counts, according to the Los Angeles Times. Retired Los Angeles Lakers basketball legend Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and six other passengers died January 26 when an Island Express Sikorsky S-76B flown by Zobayan crashed while on a VFR Part 135 flight near Calabasas, California. Information released by the National Transportation Safety Board suggests that the helicopter crashed while Zobayan was attempting to fly in an area of rising terrain and instrument meteorological conditions.
This legal action comes one week after various media outlets reported that Zobayan had received “counseling” from the FAA after penetrating Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) Class B airspace without permission while flying an AS350 in May 2015. In that incident, Zobayan had requested a special VFR (SVFR) transition and was denied. Per policy and instructions on the Los Angeles terminal area chart, SVFR is prohibited at LAX for fixed-wing operations. It is not prohibited for rotary-wing operations but, depending on traffic flow, can be difficult to obtain.
Per previous reporting, Zobayan was a veteran helicopter pilot with more than 8,000 hours total time and had extensive experience flying in the L.A. basin and its complicated airspace. FAA counseling for inadvertent or infrequent airspace or other types of violations is not uncommon. In a recent high-profile case, in 2017 actor and pilot Harrison Ford was given “counseling” after accidentally landing an Aviat Husky on a taxiway at John Wayne International Airport (KSNA) in Santa Ana, California.
On Tuesday, AIN learned that Island Express Helicopters had been fined by the FAA in the amounts of $8,500 and $10,950 in 2018 for violations of the agency’s drug-testing requirements. Drug-testing fines represented the majority of FAA enforcement actions in 2018, comprising 90 out of the 176 cases for the year, according to FAA quarterly enforcement action reports examined by AIN. Major aviation industry companies such as Delta Air Lines, NetJets, and PHI Helicopters all were caught up in what were largely technical violations related to FAA drug-testing protocol and/or requirements. FAA drug-testing fines in the first quarter of 2018 alone amounted to $332,040 distributed across 27 cases.
In a statement from Island Express to AIN on Tuesday, the company said, “During a regular FAA audit of Island's drug program in 2018, it was discovered that two employees were not immediately added to the random testing pool after their negative pre-employment tests. The fines were paid. The program was changed so that all applicants are automatically added to the pool. The employee involved was not Ara Zobayan.”
The FAA did not respond to AIN’s request for comment.