By Fred Shuster
Attorneys for Los Angeles County argued in a court filing Monday that Vanessa Bryant’s claim of emotional distress caused by the alleged sharing of photos taken at the scene of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, the couple’s 13-year-old daughter and seven others is based on “hypothetical harm” since the images were never publicly circulated.
In the motion asking a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, the county says 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 those photographs surfacing” does not constitute grounds for the suit, the county alleges.
A “preemptive, speculative lawsuit about what `may’ or `could’ happen” fails as a matter of law, since there’s no standing to sue for “hypothetical harm,” the county contends, adding that while Bryant “paints a nefarious picture,” the facts do not support it.
Bryant’s attorneys have not yet responded to the motion. A hearing is scheduled for Dec. 27 in Los Angeles federal court. Trial is set for Feb. 22, if the case goes forward.
In her complaint, Bryant alleges 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 Sheriff Alex 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 a 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,” the sheriff is quoted as saying in the deposition. “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.”
Attorneys for Bryant are urging the judge to penalize the county for the destruction of photos taken at the site, but the judge has not yet ruled on that motion.
According to Bryant’s motion for sanctions, members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who were among first responders, improperly destroyed cellphone photos at the direction of Villanueva, who knew he was required to preserve such potential evidence.
“That order was highly irregular — unprecedented in deputies’ experience — and out of the chain of command. When a captain complained, the sheriff demoted him,” attorneys for Bryant argued.
In a win for the county, U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles Eick ruled that Bryant must turn over her mental health records for the past 11 years, which attorneys for Los Angeles County contend are needed to fighting the lawsuit.
Bryant attorney Mari Saigal alleged in court papers that the effort to get the records “should be seen for what it is: an attempt to bully Mrs. Bryant into dropping her case to avoid her private therapy records being brandished in open court and reported on by media outlets.”
The NBA legend’s widow is seeking millions of dollars in damages for the severe emotional distress she alleges suffering after discovering that sheriff’s deputies snapped and shared gruesome photos of the helicopter crash scene.
In the new filing, the county contends 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,” according to the document.
“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 an earlier county document.
“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.
“The County of Los Angeles and its governing Board of Supervisors have great sympathy for Plaintiff Vanessa Bryant and her tragic loss,” the Monday filing states. “They reiterate their condolences. It was a horrific accident that took nine innocent lives. But the County did not cause it. County personnel worked tirelessly to protect the crash site, identify the victims, and notify the families. As for this lawsuit, it is without legal merit and should be dismissed.”