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Kobe Bryant's Helicopter Crash and The Law

As an avid Laker fan, member of the Mamba Mentality tribe, and attorney, my first instinct after hearing the devastating loss of Kobe Bryant’s life was to think about how this unbelievable situation will pan out legally.

Will the Bryant family (and all of Kobe’s supporters) get any sort of retribution? Before we try to answer that question, it is important to note that this article was written before the authorities leading the investigation have released any information on the exact cause of the crash. The FAA and NTSB are the Federal agencies that have taken the lead on the investigation. 

Although the surviving members of the Bryant Family along with the survivors of other passengers involved may file lawsuits against many parties (including the pilot, pilot’s employer, helicopter manufacturer, as well as any other party that played a role in causing the helicopter to crash) this post is limited in scope to discussing the liability exposure of the pilot and pilot’s employer only.

What We Know So Far: The Weather Conditions Were Dangerous

Though the investigation into the cause of the crash will take time to be completed, we do know a few very important pieces of information that will likely play a large role into any lawsuits that will undoubtably come to fruition.

Los Angeles Police Department spokesperson, Josh Rubenstein, stated that the department’s Air Support Division grounded its helicopters Sunday morning because of foggy conditions. He further stated that “the weather conditions did not meet [the Los Angeles Police Department’s] minimum standards for flying.”

Moreover, Kurt Deetz, a former pilot for Island Express Helicopters (who used to be Kobe’s pilot) said weather conditions were poor in Van Nuys on Sunday morning — “not good at all.” However, Deetz also noted that this crash had to have been caused by more than just bad weather alone. Kobe’s helicopter had dual engines and “the likelihood of a catastrophic twin-engine failure on that aircraft just doesn’t happen,” Deetz said.

The Law

Although the FAA is authorized by Federal statute to prescribe air traffic rules and regulations, state law is used when the violation of those federal standards results in personal injury or death.[1] Under California Tort law, there are a few relevant legal doctrines that may come into play here.

Negligence

First, and most importantly, is an essential principal in state tort law called Negligence. Stated generally, Negligence is a law that holds a party to be entitled to compensation if they can prove, more likely than not, that the defendant breached the standard of care owed and that the breach caused the plaintiff some sort of injury. If the investigations point to weather or human error to be a cause of the crash, negligence will likely be the cause of action used by Vanessa Bryant for the wrongful death of her husband and baby girl. Bryant’s attorneys will argue that the pilot breached the standard of care owed by flying the helicopter under such dangerous conditions. The pilot knew of the weather before take-off, yet he disregarded those risks and choose to fly, unreasonably putting his own life and the precious lives of his passengers at risk.

Negligence Per Se

Second, the doctrine of Negligence Per Se generally holds that a person can prove that someone was negligent if:

  • the at-fault party violated a statute,
  • the statute violated was designed to prevent the kind of harm that occurred; and
  • the injured party was part of the group of people that the violated statute sought to protect.

Said differently, Bryant’s surviving family can try to argue that the pilot and pilot’s employer were negligent because the pilot violated basic Visual Flight Rules weather minimums.[2] However, some experts are already stating publicly that the pilot did not necessarily violate a federal statute by flying in the foggy weather. Aviation consultant William Lawrence, a retired Marine Corps colonel and helicopter test pilot and instructor, said that in order to fly under these foggy conditions, the pilot had to have been using special aviation instruments for the duration of the flight.

Interestingly, however, we located the audio recording of the exchange between the pilot and air traffic controllers, which indicates that he was flying under Visual Flight Rules, meaning that he was relying on his ability to see the terrain below him, and hence had to stay below the clouds. At one point, the Kobe’s pilot tells a controller that he is “in VFR at 1,500” feet, which means that the necessary instruments were likely not in use. Moreover, some eyewitnesses of the crash have stated that the visibility at and around the scene was so poor that it was hard to see just even a few hundred feet in front of you. If the FAA and NTSB investigation confirms that the necessary instruments were not in use in light of the poor weather conditions, this violation will provide strong evidence of the pilot’s negligence.

Some early reports are also indicating that the air traffic controllers for Burbank’s airspace gave Kobe’s pilot what is known as Special Visual Flight Rules clearance, meaning they could proceed through Burbank’s airspace even though it was foggy. At this point it is unclear whether this special approval to fly in the foggy weather was limited to fly over only Burbank in the fog, or also extended approval to fly through the fog in Calabasas as well. If this approval gave permission to fly over Calabasas, the pilot’s estate and his employer may have a plausible defense to the lawsuit.

An FAA official stated that any special clearance from air traffic controllers would have allowed the pilot to fly through the controlled airspace around Burbank and Van Nuys but would not give the flight “blanket clearance” to continue on from there to Calabasas. Adding that, “A pilot is responsible for determining whether it is safe to fly in current and expected conditions, and a pilot is also responsible for determining flight visibility”.

Conclusion

In the end, we can only speculate what potential lawsuits may be brought regarding the helicopter crash that killed Kobe and Gigi Bryant along with 7 other people. In order to have a clear understanding of the rights and remedies that surviving family members have, the FAA and NTSB investigations must first complete their investigation and conclude what caused the horrible crash. 

References

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