Island Express Helicopters is the company that owned and operated the helicopter which crashed on January 26, killing Kobe and Gianna Bryant, along with seven others. In a breaking news report by TMZ Sports on the day of Bryant’s public memorial, it was announced that Vanessa Bryant had filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Island Express Helicopters, claiming the company and the helicopter pilot, Ara George Zobayan, were reckless.
Per TMZ Sports, the lawsuit claims a number of things: that Zobayan was driving 180 miles an hour at a steep decline in “heavy fog”; that Zobayan had violated the visual rule minimums in the past and been cited for it; and that the helicopter wasn’t safe, though it didn’t stipulate why the helicopter wasn’t safe.
You can learn more about the late pilot, Zobayan, here.
Per The Los Angeles Times, the lawsuit claims that Zobayan was “negligent.”
Furthermore, it reads in part: “Defendant Island Express Helicopters’ breach of its duty and negligence caused the injuries and damages complained of herein and Plaintiffs’ deceased, Kobe Bryant, was killed as a direct result of the negligent conduct of Zobayan for which Defendant Island Express Helicopters is vicariously liable in all respects.”
Attorneys for Vanessa Bryant filed the lawsuit hours before the public memorial service for Bryant and Gianna was set to begin, at the Staples Center.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Island Express Issued a Statement Following the Helicopter Crash: ‘The Shock of the Accident Affected All Staff’
Island Express Helicopters has not yet responded to the lawsuit filed against the helicopter operator. However, it has issued two statements in the past, in connection to the helicopter crash.
On its website, Island Express responded to the tragic helicopter accident by releasing two statements. The first clarified a day later that the accident had, in fact, happened:
One of our helicopters, N72EX, Sikorsky S76, was involved in an accident on Sunday, January 26th in the Calabasas area of LA County.We are deeply saddened by this tragedy. Our top priority is providing assistance to the families of the passengers and the pilot. We hope that you will respect their privacy at this extremely difficult time.The pilot, Ara Zobayan, was our chief pilot. Ara has been with the company for over 10 years and has over 8,000 flight hours.We are working closely with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to investigate the cause of the accident and we are grateful to the first responders and local authorities for their response to this unimaginable accident.
All services (regular and charter) were immediately suspended following the tragic accident on Sunday, January 26.
The shock of the accident affected all staff, and management decided that service would be suspended until such time as it was deemed appropriate for staff and customers.
The helicopter owned by Island Express was sold by the state of Illinois in August 2015 for $515,161 to Jim Bagge, who owns JB Helicopter Accessory Service in Sun Valley, California. It was registered by Island Express Holding Corp with the FAA on September 3, 2015. It is not clear if the helicopter was bought for the company by Bagge or was sold by him to them after the auction.
2. Zobayan’s Citation Came From an FAA Violation in 2015
In 2015, Zobayan was reprimanded for flying without permission into an airspace with low visibility. An inquiry into Zobayan’s Federal Aviation Administration enforcement record revealed this startling information, approximately a month after the crash.
This record didn’t indicate whether he was flying with passengers or alone at the time.
Here’s what’s known about that 2015 incident: Zobayan was piloting a helicopter near the airport in Hawthorne, California, and heading north when he requested approval to cross through the airspace of LAX. He was denied that request, because of visual flight rules — because the weather was so bad that he wouldn’t be able to fly by sight.
He then asked if he could “maintain special VFR”, which means that he requested approval to fly by sight in less than ideal conditions. He was, again, denied. At some point during this conversation, his helicopter entered the airspace, thus inciting a violation.
3. Island Express Helicopters Conducted Additional Training With Zobayan Following the 2015 Incident
According to USA Today, Zobayan was flying for Island Express Helicopters when the 2015 incident took place. Following that incident, he reportedly went through additional training procedures with Island Express, including additional ground and flight training.
The FAA report said, per the publication, that Zobayan “admitted his error, took responsibility for his action, and was willing to take any other necessary steps toward compliance.”
The report concluded, “There are no indications that this is a repeated incident and there are no signs that this incident is a trend with Mr. Zobayan.”
In addition to undergoing training with Island Express Helicopters, Zobayan also underwent training with the FAA. According to his report: he was counseled “on operating in Class B airspace, special VFR weather minimums, proper planning, reviewing weather, and anticipating required action,” the report said. “He was cooperative and receptive to the counseling.”
4. Vanessa Is Seeking ‘Punitive Damages’ in the Lawsuit, Though the Monetary Figure Isn’t yet Clear
In the lawsuit acquired by TMZ Sports, Vanessa Bryant is seeking “punitive damages” for the wrongful deaths of the passengers on board the helicopter, including her husband and daughter. However, the lawsuit doesn’t specify a monetary figure.
The Los Angeles Times reports that the complaint has 27 counts, and seeks general damages, economic damages, punitive damages and more.
It’s likely that this will generate heavy speculation in the days and weeks to come, given the Bryant family’s net worth. It’s also worth noting that Vanessa set up the Mamba on Three Fund after the helicopter crash, which aims to raise money and financially support the other victims of the helicopter crash.
5. The Exact Cause of the Helicopter Crash Remains Under Investigation
A month after the crash, the exact explanation for why the helicopter spiraled into a Calabasas mountainside is still undetermined. Authorities have acknowledged that there are a number of possibilities for the crash, especially considering the heavy fog through which the helicopter was traveling.
The helicopter was a Sikorsky S-76, which Bryant had flown in several times, both with his family and to basketball games and practices while he was with the Lakers.
Flight records show that the helicopter left Santa Ana John Wayne International Airport at 9:08 a.m. local time and crashed about 9:47 a.m. in hilly terrain near Calabasas. Deetz, the former Island Express pilot, told The Los Angeles Times weather conditions were poor in the area where the helicopter crashed. He said it was more likely the crash was caused by bad weather than engine or mechanical issues.
Kurt Deetz, a pilot who flew for Island Express who flew Bryant at times between 2014 to 2016, told The Los Angeles Times the Sikorsky helicopter was “like a Cadillac, a limousine, it’s limo-esque,” saying it’s comfortable and safe. Deetz told the newspaper the specific S-76B that crashed was in “fantastic” condition and said Island Express followed a “very good maintenance program.”
The Sikorsky S-76 helicopter holds up to 14 people, including two pilots. Sikorsky is a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, which says on its website that the S-76 is “smooth, reliable, quiet,” and is a “boardroom in the sky.”
In a statement after the crash, Sikorsky said, “We extend our sincerest condolences to all those affected by today’s Sikorsky S-76B accident in Calabasas, California. We have been in contact with the NTSB and stand ready to provide assistance and support to the investigative authorities and our customer.”
Sikorsky added, “Safety is our top priority; if there are any actionable findings from the investigation, we will inform our S-76 customers.”
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