At the expiration of every year, we plan the next. New beginnings, fresh starts, the looming beauty of the unknown. 2020, however, has so far been anything but beautiful. Perhaps the most gut-wrenching event of the year happened on Sunday, January 26th. The world stood still as we mourned the unexpected death of NBA legend Kobe “Black Mamba” Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.

On January 26th, Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna (endearingly known as “Gigi” and “Mambacita”), and seven others boarded a private helicopter to fly to a basketball tournament at Mamba Sports Academy, a sports training facility sponsored by Bryant himself. The helicopter was traveling at approximately 184 miles per hour through low-hanging clouds at the time of the devastating crash, killing all nine aboard (NY Times). According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)’s initial report, the helicopter did not show any clear signs of serious engine failure (Preliminary NTSB Report). A final report detailing the NTSB’s best assessment of what actually caused the crash could take anywhere from 1-2 years, per the agency’s officials. However, what is known without a doubt is that (1) the weather in Calabasas, California that day contributed to diminished visibility along the helicopter’s route across the San Fernando Valley and the Santa Monica Mountains, and (2) directly before the crash, pilot Ara Zobayan requested special permission to fly through the control zones around Burbank and Van Nuys Airport, despite the incredibly low visibility.

The late Pilot Zobayan was an experienced pilot. He had logged more than 1,200 hours in the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter flown in the crash. In addition, he was certified to fly in conditions of low visibility with the use of his instruments. However, the owner of the helicopter, Island Express Helicopters, is only certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to allow its pilots to fly visually. “Visually” as defined by this certification means having at least half a mile of daytime visibility and the ability to see the ground. On that fateful Sunday in January, Pilot Zobayan definitely could not have flown visually. (NY Times)

On February 24th, the world stood still once more as thousands of mourners gathered at Staples Center, the home of the Los Angeles Lakers, for a memorial service to celebrate the lives of Kobe and Gigi.

Hundreds of thousands more around the globe watched on smartphones, computers, and televisions. While Staples Center—the house that Kobe built—filled with grief-stricken tears and laughter at happier memories, attorneys for Kobe’s widow, Vanessa Bryant, were filing a wrongful death lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court against Island Express Holding Corp. and Island Express Helicopters (LA Times). The 27-count complaint alleges that Pilot Zobayan was negligent and failed “to use ordinary care in piloting the subject aircraft.” It continues, “Defendant Island Express Helicopters authorized, directed and/or permitted a flight with full knowledge that the subject helicopter was flying into unsafe weather conditions.” The complaint further alleges that Kobe died as a direct result of the pilot’s negligent conduct, for which Island Express is vicariously liable in all respects.

In order to prevail on her wrongful death claim, Vanessa Bryant must prove the following:

1. Island Express owed Kobe Bryant a duty of care;

2. Island Express breached the duty of care it owed to Kobe Bryant; and

3. Island Express allowing Pilot Zobayan to fly through low visibility directly caused Kobe Bryant’s wrongful death. It is not enough that merely a duty was breached or that a law was broken—the action must have directly caused Bryant’s death.

Vanessa Bryant is being represented by Munger, Tolles & Olson and Robb & Robb, a Kansas City-based firm that specializes in helicopter crashes (LA Times).

With the mourning of a legend gone entirely too soon, comes the burning, global desire for justice. Fans of Black Mamba and basketball alike, the city of Los Angeles, and legal minds all throughout the world will be watching the development of this case closely, hoping for a glimmer of light in a year that seems set on being completely void of it.

About the Author
Aysha Spencer is a member of the Berkeley Law Class of 2022. She is originally from Berlin, Germany, but now proudly calls Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas home. When Aysha is not busy reading or studying the law, she enjoys playing cards with family and friends, watching sports as if her life depends on it, and snuggling her two fur babies—a chihuahua/terrier named Tank and a kitten named Moon.