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Kobe Bryant’s death was one of the most shocking sports stories of 2020. Little did basketball fans understand at the time that the tragedy would be the start of multiple dramas keeping the Los Angeles Lakers legend’s name in the news for what could be many years.

The latest twist comes from a ruling in a wrongful death lawsuit that doesn’t directly involve Bryant or his widow, Vanessa. In fact, 330 million Americans are more directly involved than the player’s family is.

Kobe Bryant died in a January 2020 helicopter crash

The wrongful death suit filed following Kobe Bryant's death in January 2020 continues to wind its way through the courts. | ABC/Randy Holmes via Getty Images
The wrongful death suit filed following Kobe Bryant’s death in January 2020 continues to wind its way through the courts. | ABC/Randy Holmes via Getty Images

Kobe Bryant and 13-year-old daughter Gianna were two of the nine people who perished in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020, in Calabasas, California, about 30 miles from Los Angeles. The Bryants and six family friends were en route to a youth basketball game in Thousand Oaks when the helicopter crashed in heavy fog.

Bryant was 41 years old at the time of his death.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators determined that pilot Ara Zobayan likely lost his bearings while flying through low clouds and steered the helicopter into a hillside. By that time, Vanessa Bryant had already filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court alleging that Island Express Helicopters and Island Express Holding Corp. negligently operated the flight by authorizing Zobayan to fly into unsafe weather conditions.

The helicopter company filed a cross-complaint seeking indemnification and arguing that two flight controllers shared the blame for the crash. The company sought to attach the pair to the lawsuit. The controllers worked for the FAA, which would make the federal government a co-defendant.

The U.S. Justice Department responds

Attaching the government to the civil lawsuit begun by Vanessa Bryant had the effect of moving the case to federal court. According to, the U.S. Justice Department argued that the state court lacked the jurisdiction that would allow the government to be brought in as a defendant.

In a ruling released May 3, 2021, U.S. District Judge Fernando M. Olguin agreed with the government that the company operating the helicopter could not escape its own potential liability. However, he denied the rest of the bid to nullify the cross-complaint. That kept the case in federal court, and Olguin ordered the government to reply to the Island Express complaint.

Barring a reversal, the decision potentially affects at least two other families that have filed wrongful death lawsuits. If the suits are successful, damages could run into the tens of millions of dollars, and taxpayers would be on the hook for a portion of the sum.

The Bryants’ deaths set off a chain of other actions

Aside from settling the estate of her late husband, Vanessa Bryant is dealing with numerous other actions resulting from the January 2020 tragedy.

Among them:

  • She sued Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva in 2020, claiming his agency knew deputies took unauthorized photos of the helicopter crash scene and shared them with strangers. The county is arguing Bryant has no basis to sue because the potential harm from dissemination of the images is only theoretical.
  • Bryant is the defendant in a suit brought by her mother. Sofia Lane alleges her daughter unlawfully kicked her out of the family home.
  • Although there are no lawsuits stemming from the move, as of yet, Bryant ended her husband’s endorsement deal with Nike when it expired in April 2021. She might launch a new line of footwear in the coming months.

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