A judge today took under submission a motion by the estate of the pilot in the Jan. 26 helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others to move a lawsuit brought by Bryant’s widow to Orange County to ensure a fair trial.
Vanessa Bryant brought the case on Feb. 24 in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of herself and her surviving three daughters, including the youngest, Capri, who turned one-year-old on Sunday.
The case was later transferred to Van Nuys Superior Court and names as defendants the estate of the late chopper pilot, Ara Zobayan, plus Island Express Helicopters and Island Express Holding Corp. Judge Virginia Keeny heard arguments on the change-of-venue motion, then took the case under submission.
The Zobayan estate lawyers contend in their motion that trying the case anywhere in Los Angeles County would be prejudicial to their client and that Orange County is a better place to pick a jury.
“The fact that not only the Bryant family, but all of the passenger families, live in Orange County makes that venue a reasonable and fundamentally fair location for trial,” the motion reads. “A pool of jurors not unknown to plaintiffs would decide their claims, while at the same time providing due consideration for the defenses presented.”
The estate lawyers maintain that the “notoriety and popularity of the late Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles County … reached a level that left no person in the county unaware of his role in branding Los Angeles as his city. No other single individual in recent memory, sports figure or otherwise, has been considered by the people to be such a personification of their city of Los Angeles.”
In their court papers, lawyers for Vanessa Bryant state in their opposition to the change-of-venue motion that the Zobayan estate motion “misrepresents the legal standard for deciding a motion to transfer venue in a civil case. From there, defendant fails to produce any evidence that he will suffer actual prejudice before a Los Angeles County jury.”
More than 1,700 pages of documents from the federal probe of the crash did not identify a cause, but the authors boosted the theory that Zobayan might have become disoriented amid foggy conditions.
The suit faults Island Express for allowing the helicopter to be flown in “heavy fog and low clouds” which prompted “law enforcement agencies and tour companies” to ground their helicopters.
“On information and belief, Island Express Helicopters’ Federal Aviation Administration operating certificate limited its pilots to flying only under visual flight rules,” according to the lawsuit. “The subject helicopter was not licensed or certified to be flown into instrument conditions. On information and belief, the pilot-in-command, Ara George Zobayan, was required to fly only in conditions that he could navigate visually.
“Ara George Zobayan attempted to maneuver the helicopter up and forward to clear the clouds, then entered a turn sending the helicopter into steep terrain at approximately 180 mph,” the suit continues. “Witnesses on the ground reported seeing the helicopter flying through a layer of clouds and fog before the helicopter crashed.”
There were no survivors.
In addition to the 50-year-old pilot, Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, the crash killed:
— John Altobelli, 56, longtime coach of the Orange Coast College baseball team, along with his wife, Keri, 46, and their 13-year-old daughter Alyssa, who was a teammate of Gianna on Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy basketball team;
— Sarah Chester, 45, and her 13-year-old daughter Payton, who also played with Gianna and Alyssa; and
— Christina Mauser, 38, one of Bryant’s assistant coaches on the Mamba Academy team.
Relatives of the others killed in the crash have filed separate lawsuits and they also oppose moving the case out of Los Angeles County.