Everything You Need to Know About Vanessa Bryant's Wrongful Death Suit

Louisa Ballhaus

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It’s been less than a month since Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant, and seven other victims were tragically killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. This week, the legal ramifications of that crash are starting to emerge, with widow Vanessa Bryant filing a wrongful death suit against Island Express Helicopters, the company that owned and operated the helicopter that crashed, on Monday morning. SheKnows spoke with attorney Neama Rahmani of West Coast Trial Lawyers, who is not associated with the case, to find out more about what this suit means, why Vanessa may have filed, and what she could expect as an outcome.

Who files a wrongful death suit, and why?

“A wrongful death lawsuit is filed on behalf of the surviving heirs — in this case, Vanessa Bryant and the surviving children,” Rahmani explained. “The damages in a wrongful death suit are for loss of their loved one, loss of companionship, financial support…all those types of things that really capture the true loss of a family member.”

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What do you need to prove in a wrongful death case? 

“The elements of any civil claim are duty, breach, causation, damages,” Rahmani said. “So, duty: the helicopter pilot had a duty to fly safe. Breach: that he was negligent. He violated that duty and flew a helicopter into a cliff. There’s any number of reasons why that may have happened . . . . Causation is that the negligence caused the death . . . and damages — what’s the loss of a loved one? How could you possibly value Kobe Bryant, 41 years young, those children growing up without a father, a wife not having a husband? You can’t even begin to put a number on that.”

“This is really a case about damages because the other elements are crystal clear,” he opined. “If someone loses control of a helicopter and crashes a helicopter, it’s no different from you driving in a car with someone and you’re a passenger and they crash the car.”

What penalties might Island Express Helicopters face?

“They not only employed the pilot, they owned the helicopter, so whatever insurance there is, is going to pay out,” Rahmani posited. “I read reports today that they had $50 million in coverage…if it’s a $50 million combined single limit policy — that means for every occurrence — that’s really all there is.”

Basically, there’s a limited amount that can be paid out to Vanessa and the other victims’ families. Whatever insurance policy the company held, that amount will be available to compensate the victims. And beyond that, the victims’ families may go after the company’s assets — but those funds are limited, too.

“Most normal companies don’t have the assets to pay damages of hundreds of millions. They just don’t,” he said. “And if it turns out to be the case that people do want to go after the company, and they probably will, the company has no choice but to file bankruptcy.”

How will Vanessa Bryant’s suit affect the other victim’s families?

“There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s not going to be enough compensation to pay the families of the nine deceased,”  Rahmani said. “So, let’s say it’s $50 million-plus whatever small amount of assets this company has. I imagine the total pool is going to be less than $100 million.”

Once the amount of insurance money has been determined, the victims’ families will have the choice of informal arbitration or litigation to decide how the funds get split up. But since Vanessa is pursuing additional damages (and other families are expected to follow suit), that may complicate an equitable divide of the available funds.

Since Island Express Helicopters only has a finite amount of money they’ll be able to pay out, Vanessa being awarded damages in this lawsuit would mean the Bryant family getting a larger share of funds than other families.

“Any money that she gets is going to take away from those seven other victims,” Rahmani said.

What else could Vanessa Bryant get out of this lawsuit?

“She may ultimately decide that she wants civil justice,” Rahmani said. “In a lawsuit, you can see documents, you can take depositions…you can investigate the pilot and his previous flying history, issues with helicopter maintenance and so forth.”

“It may not be about the money,” he concluded. “She may just want answers.”