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Kobe Bryant Widow Says Helicopter Company Forum Shopping Wrongful Death Lawsuit

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On August 14, Island Express, the company accused of causing the helicopter crash leading to the death of basketball legend, Kobe Bryant, filed cross-complaints in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The cross-claims alleged that two federal aviation air traffic controllers committed a series of “erroneous acts and/or omissions” at the time of the flight and were therefore responsible for the crash. Vanessa Bryant, the widow of Kobe, filed a challenge to the cross-complaints on Friday in California state court asserting the claims were an effort to “forum shop” the case so it would be moved to federal court.

The air traffic controllers work for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Southern California TRACON, which handles flights in the region. Island Express claims the control facility negligently led the pilot, Ara Zobayan, into believing he was being tracked by their radar system and the tower would have provided a warning if he was flying too low and endangering the passengers.

The cross-complaint stated, “Had [the controllers] not engaged in the numerous negligent acts and/or omissions stated herein, then the Pilot [Ara Zobayan] would not have been forced to respond to multiple [air traffic control] requests and commands during the most critical phase of the flight.”

In a demurrer seeking dismissal of the cross-claims, Vanessa Bryant stated that Island Express’ cross-complaint “manipulates federal law and this court’s jurisdiction in a transparent and untenable attempt to forum-shop their way into federal court.”

“Defendants’ cross-complaint sneakily tracks the exact language of the FTCA but fails to acknowledge that the sole remedy for an FTCA claim is federal court,” Bryant’s filing said. “If defendants believe that the [air traffic controllers] share liability for plaintiffs’ underlying claim, they may bring an FTCA action for contribution or indemnification in federal court. Defendants may not, however, disguise an obvious and unmistakable FTCA claim as a state-law tort claim with hope to forum-shop this action into federal court.”

Kobe Bryant was escorting his daughter, Gianna, and others to a youth basketball game at his Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, California, on January 26 when the helicopter crashed into hilly terrain amid thick fog near Calabasas, California. Along with the Bryants, Gianna’s two basketball teammates, their parents, and a basketball coach were also killed. Nine individuals perished in the crash.

In February Vanessa Bryant filed a 28-count wrongful death complaint against Island Express Helicopters and Island Express Holding Corp. The complaint alleges the helicopter pilot failed “to properly monitor and assess the weather conditions” before the crash, or to “use ordinary care in piloting the subject aircraft.” Additionally, the complaint alleges that Island Express Helicopters “failed to equip the helicopter with the proper safety technology, including a Terrain Avoidance and Warning System that alerts pilots to hillsides and mountains in foggy weather.”

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board is currently in progress, and no preliminary findings have been released to the public.