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Vanessa Bryant sues helicopter operator of crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others

From left, Vanessa Bryant, Kobe Bryant, Natalia Bryant and Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant attend the world premiere of "A Wrinkle in Time" in Los Angeles on Feb. 26, 2018. Kobe Bryant, a five-time NBA champion and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, died in a helicopter crash in California on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. He was 41.

JORDAN STRAUSS/INVISION

By LORI ARATANI | The Washington Post | Published: February 24, 2020

Lawyers for Vanessa Bryant, the widow of Los Angeles Lakers great Kobe Bryant, on Monday filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the company that operated the helicopter that crashed into a California hillside last month, killing her husband, 13-year-old daughter and seven others.

The suit was filed on the same day that thousands of fans gathered at Staples Center in Los Angeles to remember Kobe and Gianna Bryant. The lawsuit alleges that the helicopter company, Island Express, was "vicariously liable" for any and all actions of pilot Ara George Zobayan, including his "negligent and careless piloting . . ."

"Defendant Island Express Helicopters authorized and/or permitted a flight with full knowledge that the subject helicopter was flying to into unsafe weather conditions," the suit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, alleges.

The suit also faults Zobayan for failing to "properly monitor and assess" the weather before takeoff and for failing to "abort the flight when he knew of the cloudy conditions."

In an emailed statement, a spokesman for Island Express said: "This was a tragic accident. We will have no comment on the pending litigation."

Bryant, who regularly flew in helicopters, was traveling with Gianna and the others to a basketball tournament at his Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, California, when they were killed in the Jan. 26 crash near Calabasas, about 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

The investigation is ongoing, but many have focused on the poor weather conditions the morning of the crash. There were low clouds and restricted visibility in the area.

Video included as part of an update released this month by investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board showed the helicopter disappearing into clouds, before emerging. A witness on a nearby mountain bike trail spotted the helicopter shortly before it slammed into a hillside. The NTSB's report did not indicate why the helicopter crashed. An analysis of the crash site and the witness' account indicated the engine was supplying power to the helicopter's rotors until the moment of impact.

A full report into the crash is likely to take a year or more to complete.

Zobayan, the 50-year-old pilot, had amassed about 8,200 hours of flight time and had held a commercial pilot's certificate since 2007. Former colleagues described Zobayan, who had spent a decade working for Island Express Helicopters, as cautious and professional. In his time at the company, he regularly was Bryant's pilot.

However, the lawsuit noted that in May 2015, Zobayan had previously been cited by the Federal Aviation Administration for violating visual flight rules by flying into an airspace of reduced visibility from weather conditions.

On the day of the crash, Zobayan had requested and received permission to pass through controlled airspace near the Burbank and Van Nuys airports in lower-than-normal visibility. Shortly after, he followed a helicopter route along Highway 101. He climbed to 2,300 feet and began to turn left, before for unknown reasons began diving at a high speed into a hillside.

The Bryant crash was the most high profile of several recent deadly incidents involving helicopters. In December, a tour flight crashed in Hawaii in bad weather, killing seven people. In June, a helicopter hit a skyscraper in New York, bursting into flames and killing the pilot. In all, 51 people were killed in helicopter crashes last year, according to the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team, a joint industry and government group.

Bryant was a teenage phenomenon who entered the NBA straight out of high school in 1996. He was selected by the Charlotte Hornets but was immediately traded to the Lakers, with whom he spent his 20-year career.

He retired as the NBA's third-all-time leading scorer, with 33,643 points, and was expected to be inducted to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on the first ballot this summer. He was to be a headlining member of a star-studded class that included Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett.

The Washington Post's Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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