LOS ANGELES—An attorney for Los Angeles County said on Jan. 6 that it would be proven at trial that no photos taken by county personnel at the scene of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, the NBA legend’s 13-year-old daughter, and seven others were ever shared with the public.
The comment came a day after a federal judge rejected the county’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, seeking millions of dollars in damages for the severe emotional distress she claims she suffered after discovering that graphic digital images of the crash scene were shown to members of the public by county sheriff’s and fire department personnel.
“We respectfully disagree with the Court’s ruling,” according to a statement provided to City News Service by Skip Miller, outside counsel for Los Angeles County.
“The fact remains that the County did not cause Ms. Bryant’s loss and, as was promised on the day of the crash, none of the County’s accident site photos were ever publicly disseminated. The County did its job and looks forward to showing that at trial.” In a written ruling late Wednesday, U.S. District Judge John F. Walter determined “there are genuine issues of material fact for trial” and allowed the case to go forward.
In a recent declaration, Vanessa Bryant said allegations of shared photos “caused me tremendous pain and distress.”
The county argued in its November dismissal motion 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.
The 39-year-old widow 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 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.
The county argued in its motion that 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 photographs surfacing does not constitute grounds for the complaint, county attorneys alleged.
A pretrial hearing is scheduled on Feb. 4 in Los Angeles federal court, with a trial set for Feb. 22.
Bryant’s attorneys allege that close-up photos of the remains of the basketball star and his daughter were passed around on at least 28 Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department devices and by at least a dozen firefighters.
“And that was only the beginning,” according to the plaintiff’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 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.”
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.