The charter helicopter operator of the Sikorsky S76 carrying global basketball superstar Kobe Bryant and seven others that crashed in late January is suing two air traffic controllers who handled the flight. Island Express Helicopters claims that controllers erred in the way they handled the flight, leading to the crash of the helicopter in fog in Calabasas, California. Killed in the crash were former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, his young daughter and seven others, including the pilot, Ara Zobayan.
According to local news sources, the gist of the suit is that controllers failed to provide flight following services, terminating radar services because, one controller told the pilot, “I’m going to lose radar and comms probably pretty shortly.”
The helicopter crashed after it went out of control in heavy fog and slammed into a hillside in rising terrain, killing all aboard instantly. There are reportedly four lawsuits in process against Island Express Helicopters by relatives of the crash victims.
Island Express Helicopters’ suit alleges that the denial of radar services increased the pilot’s stress and workload, with fatal results.
The allegations seem to overlook a long established principle in aviation regulations and law, that the operator of the flight, known legally as the pilot-in-command, in this case, Zobayan, takes full responsibility for the flight. This allows the pilot, for instance, to declare an emergency, to deviate from ATC commands (known as “clearances”) if the pilot deems it necessary, and to take whatever actions are necessary to protect the safety of the flight. Controllers, on the other hand, provide services to pilots and do not bear primary responsibility for the safety of the mission.
On the other hand, there have been successful lawsuits against controllers. In the case of Avianca Flight 52, which was headed to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York when it ran out of fuel after a forced go-around in instrument conditions. There were 73 fatalities. A lawsuit filed against air traffic controllers in part contended that controllers were at least partly to blame for the crash after they failed to adequately handle what was a fuel emergency, even though the crew never used the word “emergency” in communicating with ATC. The federal government settled for undisclosed terms after a week of trial testimony.
The damages that Island Express Helicopters seeks was unspecified, and there is no timetable as yet for the litigation if the case were to move forward.