By FRED SHUSTER
City News Service
LOS ANGELES (CNS) – On today’s second anniversary of the helicopter crash that took the lives of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others — Jan. 26 — the trial is nearing in a lawsuit brought by the NBA legend’s widow seeking millions of dollars in damages for the emotional distress she claims suffering after discovering that graphic photos of her loved ones’ remains were allegedly shared by Los Angeles County sheriff’s and fire department personnel.
Since private mediation efforts failed, attorneys for Vanessa Bryant and the county have submitted hundreds of pages of declarations, motions, proposed jury instructions, and verdict forms over the past week alone. The trial is scheduled to begin on Feb. 22 before US District Judge John Walter.
County attorneys say it will be proven to a federal jury in downtown Los Angeles that no photos taken by personnel at the scene of the Jan. 26, 2020, hillside crash in Calabasas were ever shared with the public.
“Two years after the crash that claimed the life of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, the county continues to grieve with Ms. Bryant and the other families who lost loved ones in this tragic accident,” said Skip Miller, outside counsel for LA County in the Bryant case. “The county responded fully to the disaster by sending in first responders — Sheriff’s and fire — to deal with the aftermath and secure the site from intruders, paparazzi, and the public.
“As part of their duties, these first responders took photos of the scene and sent them to their colleagues at the Command Post, as well as officials of the National Transportation Safety Board. And now, two years later, the fact remains that none of these photos have ever been publicly disseminated. Yet the sad irony is Ms. Bryant is suing the county for its actions while there are literally hundreds of crash site photos in the media and on the internet from hikers and bikers in the area, as well as from the media and news copters. We sympathize with her grief but believe her lawsuit is misdirected.”
In a declaration, Kobe Bryant’s widow said media reports of shared photos “caused me tremendous pain and distress.”
Bryant’s attorneys allege that close-up photos of the remains of the basketball star and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were passed around on at least 28 Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department devices and by at least a dozen firefighters in the hours after the accident.
“And that was only the beginning,” according to the widow’s court papers. “The gratuitous sharing continued in the following days and weeks and included such outrageous conduct as flaunting the photos in a bar while pantomiming dismemberment and showing off the photos over cocktails at an awards gala.”
The county maintains that the digital images were never publicly disseminated in any fashion — so Bryant’s claim of having to fear the photographs surfacing does not constitute grounds for her suit.
In its failed dismissal motion, the county argued that Bryant’s claim of emotional distress is based on “hypothetical harm” and thus lacks standing because the images were never publicly circulated and she never saw them.
Vanessa Bryant, 39, said she is infuriated “that the people I trusted to protect the dignity of my husband and daughter abused their positions to obtain souvenirs of their deaths, as though possessing pictures of their remains somehow makes them special. I imagine Kobe watching over what occurred at that crash scene, and I am overcome with anger and emotion,” according to her declaration.
In a court-ordered deposition, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said that taking and sharing such images was “wildly inappropriate” and “disgusting” and revealed efforts to “take away a trophy” from the scene of the deaths.
The widow contends that the county — through its sheriff’s and fire departments — violated her rights by taking and sharing photos of the crash site. One of her allegations is that Villanueva, in order to protect himself in the event of a lawsuit, ordered that evidence be deleted from the phones of deputies who may have possession of crash scene images.
In his deposition, Villanueva testified that he told his personnel to get rid of the photos in order to ensure the graphic images were not shared, which would cause additional harm to the suffering families of the victims, according to county attorneys.
The county maintains there’s no evidence that “death images” were shared within the sheriffs or fire departments. When allegations of improper photo sharing surfaced, “they took appropriate action. Every action was aimed at preventing harm, not causing it,” defense documents state.
The county alleges that contrary to the plaintiff’s claims, any photographs taken “did not focus on the remains of any of the victims but were general views of the crash scene that first responders and investigators typically use to assess the damage caused by tragic accidents such as this one.”
“None of the photographs were sent to anyone outside the county, nor were they publicly disseminated,” according to county attorneys.
The defense is expected to argue that Vanessa Bryant’s distress resulted from the loss of family members, not the photos, which Bryant has never seen and only learned about from newspaper reports.