Kobe Bryant’s Death: An Avoidable Tragedy

By John Oliver.

Background

Kobe Bryant’s death not only shocked the sports world but also the nation. Kobe was a professional basketball player who entered the National Basketball Association (“NBA”) straight out of high school in 1996. Kobe enjoyed enormous success throughout his twenty-year career, all with the Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe dedicated his life to his craft and the sport of basketball, his commitment to the game and desire to be the greatest led him to proclaim himself as, “The Black Mamba.” Kobe won five NBA championships and was named to eighteen NBA All-Star teams, twelve All-Defensive teams, and the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in 2008. Moreover, Kobe scored an astounding eighty-one points in a single game in 2006, the second most ever scored in a game; he was unstoppable.

Kobe was an icon. His gladiator-like demeanor struck fear in his opponents and garnered respect throughout the sport’s world. Kobe inspired an entire generation of basketball players; people wanted to be like Kobe. Not only was he a fierce competitor, he was an advocate of the game, and, most importantly, a devoted father and husband. Celebrities such as Jimmy Kimmel and Jay-Z applauded Kobe’s love of his family. Kobe was often seen sitting courtside with his daughter, Gigi, and explaining the nuisances of the complex game of basketball like only a mastermind could. To Kobe, his family was everything.

January 26, 2020

TMZ Sports reported the death of Kobe Bryant and eight others shortly after 12:00 PM PT on January 26, 2020. The news spread like wildfire. Media outlets across the country scrambled to confirm TMZ’s report. Once confirmed, an uncontrollable sense of melancholy blanketed the nation.

Kobe’s helicopter crashed while making a routine flight from John Wayne Airport to the Mamba Sports Academy located near Thousand Oaks, California. Kobe and his pilot, Ara Zobayan, made the same trip the day prior. However, the weather conditions were poor on that fateful Sunday morning as dense fog engulfed the Los Angles valley. The helicopter lost all communications with air-traffic controllers while climbing to avoid the fog. The helicopter then began a rapid descent before ultimately colliding into the hills of Calabasas. At the time of impact, the helicopter was descending more than 2,000 feet a minute. Initial investigations show that the helicopter did not experience engine malfunction or structural failure. The weather conditions and terrain caused the crash and death of nine people.

This blog post would be amiss if it failed to mention the other eight people who lost their lives that afternoon alongside Kobe. The eight include: Kobe’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Gigi Bryant; family friends, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, and their fourteen-year-old daughter, Alyssa Altobelli; Gigi’s teammate, Payton Chester, and her mother, Sarah Chester; Gigi’s coach, Christina Mauser; and a pilot with more than twenty years of flight experience, Ara Zobayan.

Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems and the Failure of the FAA

Unfortunately, Kobe’s helicopter lacked a terrain awareness and warning system (“TAWS”). Such a system would have alerted Mr. Zobayan about the mountainous area, giving him time to correct his deadly course. Although the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) required a TAWS to be installed in all helicopters manufactured in 2014 or later, there was no requirement that already produced helicopters be retrofitted with the technology. Nevertheless, in 2006 the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) issued a recommendation to the FAA that would have required TAWS in helicopters carrying six or more passengers. However, the FAA failed to act for more than eight years forcing the NTSB to withdraw their recommendation in 2014.

Similar crashes to the one that killed Kobe and eight others occurred near the Gulf of Mexico and mountains of Hawaii in the past decade. After each crash, the NTSB revamped their recommendation and placed pressure on the FAA. Initially, the FAA agreed to implement a policy requiring a TAWS on all helicopters carrying six or more passengers, however, the FAA reneged on their promise and failed to act. The FAA knew of the dangers surrounding helicopters that lacked a TAWS. The FAA knew of the deficiency embedded within their regulations. The FAA neglected their duty and a catastrophe occurred.

In short, Kobe’s death was avoidable and government inaction is to blame.

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John Oliver

J.D. Candidate, 2021

John Oliver is 2L Staff Writer for the Arizona State Law Journal, Pedrick Scholar, and Vice President of the Corporate and Business Law Society. He graduated from the University of Arizona in 2017 with a degree in political science and a minor in economics. When John is not in the law school’s library he can be seen playing golf at the many Valley courses or in the gym playing basketball.

The opinions expressed herein are those of the individual contributors to the ASLJ Blog and should not be construed as the opinions of the Arizona State Law Journal or the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.