Vanessa Bryant, LA County unable to settle lawsuit at closed-doors session
Attorneys for Vanessa Bryant and Los Angeles County met behind closed doors but were unable to settle her lawsuit seeking millions of dollars in damages for the emotional distress she claims suffering after discovering that graphic photos of the helicopter crash that killed her NBA legend husband, their 13-year-old daughter and seven others were allegedly shared by sheriff’s and fire department personnel, according to court papers obtained Friday.
The private mediation session took place in June before retired Superior Court Judge Louis M. Meisinger. Lead trial counsel attended, and representatives of each party with authority to settle the case participated. The parties were unable to reach a resolution, according to a status report filed late Thursday in Los Angeles federal court.
With trial looming, attorneys have submitted hundreds of pages of declarations, motions, proposed jury instructions and verdict forms in the past day. Many of the matters are expected to be addressed at a hearing before U.S. District Judge John Walter scheduled for Feb. 11.
Although trial was set to begin on Feb. 22, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California this week suspended jury trials through the end of next month due to the spread of Omicron, the new virus variant that causes COVID-19, within the region’s federal courthouses.
Walter himself mentioned during a recent Zoom hearing in an unrelated case that the downtown Los Angeles courthouse has been “devastated” by the virus and operations were being handled by a skeleton crew.
On Jan. 5, the judge rejected the county’s motion to dismiss the suit.
County attorneys say it will be proven at trial that no photos taken by personnel at the scene of the Jan. 26, 2020, crash in Calabasas were ever shared with the public.
“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,” according to a lawyer for L.A. County. “The County did its job and looks forward to showing that at trial.”
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 daughter 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 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 county maintains that the digital images were never publicly disseminated in any fashion — so the widow’s claim of having to fear the photographs surfacing does not constitute grounds for her suit.
In the 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 testimony 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 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.
“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.