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Update on Kobe Bryant Wrongful Death Case: Court Refuses to Dismiss Indemnity Claims

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Update on Kobe Bryant Wrongful Death Case: Court Refuses to Dismiss Indemnity Claims

Update on Kobe Bryant Wrongful Death Case: Court Refuses to Dismiss Indemnity Claims

May 11, 2021

Although the tragic helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, occurred over a year ago, litigation stemming from the wrongful death claim filed by Bryant’s widow continues. As we discussed in a previous blog, Vanessa Bryant filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the helicopter company and the pilot, Ara Zobayan, who also perished in the crash. Vanessa Bryant’s wrongful death claim was initially filed in February 2020.

The 28-count complaint was brought against the estate of Zobayan, Island Express Helicopters, and Island Express Holding Corp. It alleges Zobayan failed “to properly monitor and assess the weather conditions” before the crash, or to “use ordinary care in piloting the subject aircraft.” The complaint further 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.”

In addition, Vanessa Bryant’s wrongful death complaint alleges that Zobayan was “flying at a high rate of speed” in such hazardous conditions, and specifically calls the pilot’s track record into question, noting he was “disciplined in 2015 for violating flying rules by traversing into areas with low visibility.

In August, Island Express Helicopters filed countersuits (also known as cross-claims or cross-complaints) against the U.S. Government, alleging the two air traffic controllers were in fact responsible for the crash that killed Kobe and Gianna Bryant. Last week, a California federal judge refused to let the U.S. government out of that countersuit, declaring that the federal court retains jurisdiction.

This means that Island Express is still able to pursue its claim for indemnity (an attempt at removing liability from the company and placing it on a third party – in this case the air traffic controllers). However, the helicopter company can’t proceed with a claim for declaratory relief against the air the traffic controllers in the wrongful death suit filed by Bryant’s widow.

According to the Court, liability for the controllers is governed by the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), and that law only waives sovereign immunity for money damages. Hence, that particular claim was denied.

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After Island Express filed its claim alleging that the air traffic controllers did not uphold their responsibilities and committed “a series of erroneous acts and/or omissions,” the government later certified that the air traffic controllers were acting within the scope of their employment at the time of the fatal crash. The government then substituted itself as a defendant in place of the individual air traffic controllers, moving the suit to a California federal district court pursuant to the Westfall Act (established to protect federal employees from common law tort lawsuits while engaged in duties for the government).

The government then moved to dismiss Island Express’s claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and, alternatively, the company’s specific claim for declaratory relief. In essence, the government’s argument was that the state court lacked jurisdiction over Island Express’s cross-claims, and therefore the federal court could not automatically acquire jurisdiction upon removal to federal court.

Additionally, Vanessa Bryant sought to dismiss Island Express’s cross-claims, arguing last September in California state court that Island Express was trying to “forum shop” the case so it would be moved to federal court.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Fernando M. Olguin disagreed with the original ruling in Island Express’s cross-claim. Judge Olguin held that, in the context of removal under the Westfall Act, given the circumstances of the case the “derivative jurisdiction doctrine does not apply.” The derivative jurisdiction doctrine provides that, “if the state court lacks jurisdiction over the subject matter or the parties, the federal court acquires none upon removal, even though the federal court would have had jurisdiction if the suit had originated there.”

Judge Olguin noted that the aforementioned Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which permits certain specific tort claims against the U.S. Government, covers the “initiation of tort actions in state court against federal employees and the subsequent removal of such claims to federal court.”

In his decision, Judge Olguin held that – under the Westfall Act – the relevant air traffic employees were acting within the scope of their employment. Therefore, in the removal of an action to federal court the FTCA does not apply (nor govern the claims). Accordingly, the judge denied the federal government’s motion to dismiss and denied its request to remand the case back to California state court.

But because the U.S. Government also moved to dismiss Island Express’s specific cross-claim for declaratory relief, the judge ruled such claims are not identifiable under the FTCA. Island Express, therefore, failed to oppose that particular argument, and the claim was abandoned. Judge Olguin ultimately dismissed that cross-claim, but Island Express’s cross-claim for indemnity against the government is allowed to proceed to discovery.

To review:

  • The wrongful death claim will remain in federal court
  • Island Express is not able to pursue its claim for declaratory relief
  • Island Express is still able to pursue its claim for indemnity

Ready to file a claim and pursue justice through a financial damages award? Our expert attorneys are available online or by phone now.

Filing a California Wrongful Death Claim

When someone dies due to another’s negligence or misconduct (including murder), a wrongful death claim can be filed by the decedent’s surviving dependents. A wrongful death claim is different from a criminal lawsuit, and both can be brought concurrently. Additionally, the result of one claim does not have an impact on the other (e.g. the O.J. Simpson criminal murder trial and civil wrongful death claim).

Filing a wrongful death lawsuit can be the best means of recovering various types of damages, such as:

  • Funeral expenses
  • Burial expenses
  • Reasonable value of household services the decedent would have provided
  • Loss of gifts or benefits the surviving family members would have expected to receive
  • Medical bills and other general expenses accrued
  • Value of lost benefits (pension or health insurance)

If you’d like additional information on filing a California wrongful death claim, contact the experienced and dedicated team of attorneys at Dordulian Law Group (DLG). Our Wrongful Death Division is led by former Deputy District Attorney for Los Angeles County, Sam Dordulian.

At DLG, we’ve successfully recovered over $100 million in settlements and verdicts for injured victims, including wrongful death dependents. With a 98% success rate and a No Win/No Fee Guarantee that ensures you never pay a penny until we recover a maximum financial damages award for your claim, DLG is the best choice when searching for an experienced, qualified, and proven wrongful death attorney.

Call 818-322-4056 to learn more about how we can help you recover the financial compensation you deserve after an unfortunate death of a loved one.

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