It recently made the news that Vanessa Bryant, the widow of Kobe Bryant, has filed a lawsuit against the company that operated the helicopter that Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others were killed in on January 26, 2020.
Kobe Bryant had been known to take helicopters as opposed to driving due to Los Angeles traffic. On this particular day, Kobe was taking the helicopter to his daughter’s game with a few of her teammates, their parents, and coaches. The crash is still under investigation but reports suggest it happened as a result of pilot error while flying in heavy fog. In the midst of it all, most were wondering why the pilot, Ara Zobayan, chose to fly in those conditions.
According to CNN the fog was so dense that the LAPD had decided to ground its helicopters. So, why was Ara Zobayan flying? According to reports, the pilot received Special Visual Flight Rules (SVFR) clearance. SVFR clearance allows a pilot to fly in weather conditions worse than those allowed for regular visual flight rules. The investigation is continuing in efforts to find what mistakes were made that led to nine people losing their lives.
Why Bring a Lawsuit?
There is a conventional wisdom that people make claims or file lawsuits because they’re greedy for money. In our experience, nothing could be further from the truth. Aside from medical bills & lost time at work, people with serious injuries often face a lifetime’s worth of medical challenges. A settlement compensating someone for injuries caused by another’s negligence is their one opportunity to try and help them work through the physical and financial challenges that come with being seriously hurt.
But then you have people like the Bryants. Considering Kobe’s career in the NBA, his family is almost certainly not in need of money in the way that others who have not been so successful are. It’s hard to fathom that she sees this case as a get-rich-quick scheme because, frankly, she’s already there. If I had to guess, she is most likely making this claim to make a difference.
There is a long history of tort cases causing individual businesses, and even whole industries, to make changes to promote consumer safety. For example, in 2005 a 2-year-old boy in Virginia died after eating small magnets that had fallen out of a broken Magnetix toy. His parents thought he had a stomach bug, when he actually had a string of magnets and blocking his intestine, leading to his death. They resorted to the civil justice system after nothing was being done by the manufacturer and after more kids got hurt in similar incidents. The result? Changes being made by the manufacturer and the Consumer Product Safety Commission to implement new safety standard tests before toys with magnets can be put on the shelves.
Similarly, in the late 90s and early 00s, there was a rash of defective Firestone tires on Ford Explorers that failed while driving, killing hundreds and seriously injuring who knows how many more. There was a recall, but it was civil litigation that revealed that Ford knew about the tire issue that could lead to rollover accidents but that Ford tried to hide that evidence. If not for the civil action, it’s possible that nothing would ever have been done to hold Ford to its responsibility for selling a safe product and, importantly, to get an unsafe product off of shelves when it found out about a major safety issue.
The history of tort law is full of examples like these where individuals made a claim or filed a lawsuit and fought against giant corporations to make changes to safety. There is a chance that Mrs. Bryant may not win this case, but even with a loss it could inspire a change in policy. Helicopter pilots may think twice before asking to fly in dangerous weather conditions and SVFR clearance may tend to err on the side of caution as opposed to letting experienced pilots test their limits.
A major principle of tort law is to try and put people back in the position they were before their injury. This is generally a fiction though. There’s no time machine available to go back and tell a pilot not to fly in conditions or to take a drunk driver’s keys. Sometimes, the best Plaintiff’s can hope for is that a claim or a lawsuit causes enough financial trouble for a defendant (or raises the possibility of financial trouble for an industry) that better safety practices are put into place to protect others from suffering the same kinds of harm that the plaintiff has.
Be safe out there.