What to Know
- The judge concluded that "there are genuine issues of material fact for trial" and denied Los Angeles County's motion to dismiss the case.
- The NBA legend's widow is seeking millions of dollars in damages.
- The crash killed the Laker great, his 13-year-old daughter and seven others.
A judge ruled Wednesday that a lawsuit brought by Kobe Bryant's widow alleging that Los Angeles County sheriff's and fire department personnel snapped and shared gruesome photos of the bodies of her late husband and the couple's 13-year-old daughter at the scene of the helicopter crash that killed nine people can go forward to trial.
In his ruling issued late Wednesday, U.S. District Judge John F. Walter concluded that "there are genuine issues of material fact for trial" and denied Los Angeles County's motion to dismiss the case.
The NBA legend's widow is seeking millions of dollars in damages for the severe emotional distress she alleges she suffered after discovering that graphic digital images of the helicopter crash scene were passed around by county personnel.
In a recent declaration, Vanessa Bryant said the allegations "caused me tremendous pain and distress."
County attorneys argued in a November dismissal motion that Bryant's claim of emotional distress caused by the alleged sharing of the cellphone photos is based on "hypothetical harm" and thus lacks standing because the images were never publicly circulated and she never saw them.
Bryant's attorneys then asked Walter to deny the dismissal motion and allow the case to go forward.
The 39-year-old widow said that 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 the declaration.
In quotes taken from 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.
In its dismissal motion, the county said it is "undisputed that the complained-of photos have never been in the media, on the internet, or otherwise publicly disseminated." Consequently, Bryant's claim of having to fear the surfacing of the photographs does not constitute grounds for the complaint, county attorneys alleged.
A pretrial hearing is scheduled on Feb. 4 in Los Angeles federal court, with trial set for Feb. 22.
In a recent statement to City News Service, Skip Miller, outside counsel for Los Angeles County, expressed sympathy for Bryant while denying that any crash scene photos were circulated.
"While the county sympathizes with Ms. Bryant's tragic loss, it did not cause the crash that claimed the lives of her husband and child," he said.
"Rather, it responded to that crash and, at her specific request, set up a no-fly zone, undertook extensive efforts to keep the public and paparazzi away, and made sure none of the investigative photos were ever publicly disseminated. The county did its job and believes there is no merit to this lawsuit."
Bryant's attorneys paint a different picture.
"The close-up photos of Gianna and Kobe's remains were passed around on at least 28 LASD devices and by at least a dozen firefighters," the plaintiff's attorneys wrote. "And that was only the beginning. 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.
"One deputy guffawed while sharing the photos; another described the crash victims' remains as 'hamburger' and 'piles of meat."'
Such alleged behavior resulting from the county's "deliberate indifference" is more than enough reason for the judge to allow the suit to go before a jury, Bryant's attorneys had argued.
The widow contends the county — through its sheriff's and fire departments — violated her rights by taking and sharing photos of the Jan. 26, 2020, helicopter 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.
"I can tell you this," Villanueva is quoted as saying under oath.
"That the problem at hand was images getting out and harming the families. I make decisions based on the immediate threat, which is a harm that those pictures can cause to the family. I don't make a decision based on I might get sued six months later. That's preposterous."
In an earlier win for the county, U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles Eick ruled that Bryant must turn over her mental health records for the past four years, which county attorneys contend are needed to fight the lawsuit.
The county maintains there's no evidence that "death images" were shared within the sheriff's 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.
"Contrary to plaintiff's claims, the photographs 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," according to the county. "None of the photographs were sent to anyone outside the county, nor were they publicly disseminated."
The county alleges that the plaintiff's emotional distress resulted from the loss of family members, not the photos, which Bryant has never seen and only learned about from newspaper reports.