The response lists Vanessa Bryant's daughters as plaintiffs and also requests a jury trial

By Karen Mizoguchi
May 11, 2020 04:08 PM
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Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty

A relative of pilot Ara Zobayan has responded to the wrongful death lawsuit filed by Vanessa Bryant in February.

In a response, obtained by PEOPLE and filed in Los Angeles on May 8, Berge Zobayan — who is a representative of the 50-year-old pilot who was killed in the Jan. 26. helicopter crash along with Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant and six others — argues that the passengers are to blame for the fatal incident.

"Any injuries or damages to plaintiffs and/or their decedent were directly caused in full or in part by the negligence or fault of plaintiffs and/or their decedent, including their knowing and voluntary encounter with the risks involved, and that this negligence was a substantial factor in causing their purported damages, for which this answering defendant bears no responsibility," the response states.

Attorneys for the Bryant family did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's request for comment.

According to LA-based trial lawyer Tom Lallas, the response is a standard part of trial preparation in a wrongful death case like this and the response was filed in "an abundance of caution" by the lawyers representing Berge Zobayan.

"In order to preserve all of your defenses for trial, you have to state them as affirmative defenses at the time you file an answer," Lallas, managing partner of Levy, Small & Lallas, tells PEOPLE. "That doesn’t mean that the defenses have any merit whatsoever or that there’s a factual basis for the defenses, it just means in an abundance of caution the lawyer representing the defendant is stating defenses that the lawyer anticipates might be a part of the case in discovery or trial."

The response, which lists Bryant's daughters as plaintiffs and also requests a jury trial, argues "any injuries or damages to plaintiffs and/or their decedent were directly caused in full or in part by the negligence, fault or wrongful conduct of third parties, whom this answering defendant neither controlled nor had the right to control, and for which this answering defendant bears no responsibility. Said acts or omissions comparatively reduce the percentage of negligence, fault and/or liability, if any of this answering defendant."

Lallas says that essentially, Zobayan's legal team is "trying to preserve the right to attribute fault, blame or responsibility to someone else, and that’s just classic insurance defense 101 behavior."

"The first affirmative defense that lawyers always state in an answer is failure to state a claim," he continues. "That doesn’t mean that the first amended complaint fails to state a claim, it’s just that the lawyers always want to preserve that affirmative defense.”

Passengers included Kobe, 41, and Gianna, 13, as well as John Altobelli, 56, Keri Altobelli, 46, Alyssa Altobelli, 14, Sarah Chester, 45, Payton Chester, 13, and Christina Mauser, 38.

Bryant, 38, filed her wrongful death lawsuit against Island Express Helicopters, the helicopter company that owned the aircraft, and claimed that Zobayan, who was piloting the flight at the time of the crash and died, "failed to properly monitor and assess the weather prior to takeoff," "failed to abort the flight when he knew of the cloudy conditions" and "failed to properly and safely operate the helicopter resulting in a crash."

The mother of four's complaint also argued that Island Express Helicopters "knew or should have known" that Zoboyan had been previously cited by the FAA for violating "the visual flight rules minimums by flying into an area of reduced visibility from weather conditions."

Bryant and her daughters are seeking general, economic and punitive damages.

In response to the lawsuit, a rep for Island Express Helicopters told PEOPLE at the time, "This was a tragic accident. We will have no comment on the pending litigation." Lawyers for Island Express Helicopters did not immediately reply to PEOPLE's requests for comment at the time.

A rep for the company declined to comment to PEOPLE on the filing from Zobayan's relative.

According to flight tracking site FlightRadar24.com, the Los Angeles Lakers star's Sikorsky S-76B helicopter took off from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, at around 9:06 a.m. local time on Jan. 26.

Bryant and the group were on their way to a youth basketball game at his Mamba Academy in Thousand Oaks. At around 10 a.m. the helicopter crashed into a mountain, killing everyone on board.

During a press conference days after the crash,  Jennifer Homendy with The National Transportation Safety Board said the helicopter was not equipped with a terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS) — something she believes could have helped pilot Zobayan — a system aimed at preventing unintentional impacts with the ground.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)'s report on the crash found no evidence of engine failure or mechanical issues. An investigation is ongoing.