On Monday May 3, 2021, the California federal district court judge handling the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash lawsuit denied the United States Government’s motion to dismiss claims made against it by Island Express Helicopters, Inc.—the helicopter charter company operating the fateful helicopter flight—for indemnity.

Kobe Bryant was killed along with his daughter Gianna, six others, and the pilot of the helicopter, when the helicopter they were traveling in crashed in foggy weather on January 26, 2020 in California.

In February 2021, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) released its probable cause finding. The NTSB found that the crash was caused by pilot error. Specifically, the pilot flew into clouds and became spatially disoriented, resulting in a loss of control.

As a result of the crash, Kobe Bryant’s wife, Vanessa Bryant, filed a wrongful death suit in California state court against Island Express and the estate of the pilot. Island Express in turn filed cross-claims in indemnity against two air traffic controllers and alleged that the controllers’ negligence was responsible for the crash. Specifically, Island Express alleged that the controllers did not properly brief each other on the day of the crash.

The U.S. Government certified that the air traffic controllers were acting within the scope of their employment at the time of the incident, and pursuant to the Westfall Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2679,[1] the U.S. Government substituted itself as a defendant in place of the individual air traffic controllers. The U.S. Government then removed the action to a California federal district court pursuant to the Westfall Act.

Upon removal to federal court, the U.S. Government moved to dismiss Island Express’s claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and alternatively, moved to dismiss Island Express’s specific claim for declaratory relief. The U.S. Government argued that dismissal was mandated by a lack of subject matter jurisdiction under a concept known as “derivative jurisdiction”. The derivative jurisdiction doctrine provides that “if the state court lacks jurisdiction over the subject matter or the parties, the federal court acquires none upon removal, even though the federal court would have had jurisdiction if the suit had originated there.” Arizona v. Manypenny, 451 U.S. 232, 242 n. 17, 101 S.Ct. 1657, 1665 n. 17 (1981). The U.S. Government argued that under this doctrine, the state court lacked jurisdiction over Island Express’s cross-claims and therefore the federal court could not acquire jurisdiction upon removal to federal court.

Vanessa Bryant also sought to dismiss Island Express’s cross-claims, arguing to the California state court in September 2020 that Island Express was trying to “forum shop” the case and get it removed to federal court.

U.S. District Judge Fernando M. Olguin disagreed. Judge Olguin held that the derivative jurisdiction doctrine does not apply in the context of removal under the Westfall Act in the circumstances of the case. In reaching this conclusion, he noted that the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), which permits certain specific tort claims against the U.S. Government, contemplated the initiation of tort actions in state court against federal employees and the subsequent removal of such claims to federal court. He held that only after the certification required by the Westfall Act—that the relevant employees were acting within the scope of their employment—and the removal of an action to federal court, does the FTCA apply and govern the claims. Accordingly, he denied the U.S. Government’s motion to dismiss and denied its request to remand the action back to state court.

The U.S. Government had also moved to dismiss Island Express’s specific cross-claim for declaratory relief because such claims are not cognizable under the FTCA. Island Express failed to oppose that argument, and therefore, it abandoned that claim. As a result, Judge Olguin dismissed that cross-claim. Island Express’s cross-claims for indemnity against the U.S. Government will proceed to discovery.

The federal district court’s rejection of the U.S. Government’s argument will likely make it more difficult for the U.S. Government to attempt this defense in other suits involving tort claims against the U.S. Government, which are removed to federal court pursuant to the Westfall Act.

The case name is Vanessa Bryant et al. v. Island Express Helicopters Inc. et al., No. 2:20-cv-08953, in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

[1] The Federal Employees Liability Reform and Tort Compensation Act of 1988 is “commonly known as the Westfall Act[.]” See Osborn v. Haley, 549 U.S. 225, 229, 127 S.Ct. 881, 887 (2007).