One of two helicopter companies being sued by the widow of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant stemming from the crash in January that killed her husband and 13-year-old daughter, along with seven others, denied any responsibility for the accident in a statement issued Wednesday.
Vanessa Bryant’s amended Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit filed Friday alleges Richard Webb, the owner of founder of Santa Ana-based OC Helicopters LLC, suggested the route for the ill-fated flight and should have aborted it.
The estate of pilot Ara George Zobayan and Island Express Helicopters Inc., which owned the chopper, were originally named as defendants when the suit was filed Feb. 24.
The amended suit alleges OC Helicopters “improperly failed to tell the Island Express pilot Ara George Zobayan to abort or cancel the flight or turn around when its agent and employee, Richard Webb, was in communications with defendant Zobayan and monitoring the weather during the flight.”
Webb personally checked and monitored weather conditions every hour and told Zobayan that based on the weather reports, the flight “was doable and was a good flight plan,” according to the plaintiff’s court papers.
Webb continued to review weather updates and communicate with Zobayan and sent him a final weather-related text 20 minutes after the crash, according to the amended complaint, which says Webb regularly discussed weather and routes with Island Express pilots prior to and during flights.
A statement released Wednesday afternoon by OC Helicopters reads: “We have acted as travel agent and concierge for the Bryant family for many years, seamlessly arranging local travel, accommodations, and other services. This was a personal tragedy for us as Kobe and family began as clients and then became close personal friends. While we at OCH continue to grieve for this unimaginable loss, we adamantly deny any responsibility for the accident.”
According to the company’s statement, OCH did not have “operational control” — defined by FAA regulations as the authority to initiate, conduct, or terminate a flight — over any flights operated by Island Express Helicopters.
“FAA regulations are clear that only the pilot has Operational Control of the aircraft. OCH never at any time had `Operational Control’ of the Sikorsky helicopter operated by Island Express. Ultimate flight decision making authority and responsibility was that of the pilot, Ara Zobayan, alone,” the OCH statement says.
OCH’s attorney, Dina Adham, said: “We are confident that the law and facts will show that OCH was not responsible for this tragedy in any way and that we will prevail on a motion for summary judgment.”
Attorneys for Vanessa Bryant filed additional court papers Friday seeking dismissal of Island Express’ cross-complaint against air-traffic controllers the company blames for the crash, calling the legal effort a “transparent and untenable attempt to forum-shop their way into federal court” and deprive their client of her preference that the case be tried in state court.
The Island Express cross-complaint contends the crash was “caused by a series of erroneous acts and/or omissions” by a pair of air-traffic controllers at Southern California TRACON, or terminal radar approach control. But Bryant’s attorneys maintain the Island Express claim can only be heard in federal court and that “fortunately, and unsurprisingly, California law prevents such an attempt to abuse and manipulate federal law.”
In another legal move, she filed a lawsuit last Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court against Los Angeles County and Sheriff Alex Villanueva, alleging he failed to keep his promise to her that the crash scene was secured and that some of the deputies tasked with the assignment instead took photos of the dead.
“Faced with a scene of unimaginable loss, no fewer than eight sheriff’s deputies at the crash site pulled out their personal cell phones and snapped photos of the dead children, parents and coaches,” the suit states.
The LASD issued a statement Tuesday that read, “Shortly following this tragic crash, Sheriff Villanueva sponsored legislation which now makes it a crime for public safety personnel to take and share non-official pictures of this nature. Due to the pending litigation, we are unable to offer further comment.”
The helicopter, a 1991 Sikorsky S76B piloted by Zobayan, crashed amid heavy fog on Jan. 26 on a Calabasas hillside, killing Zobayan and his eight passengers, including the 41-year-old Bryant and his daughter, Gianna.
At least four lawsuits have been filed against Island Express Helicopters in the months since the crash, including those by relatives of other passengers aboard the aircraft.