A federal judge on Wednesday rejected an effort by Los Angeles County lawyers to dismiss Vanessa Bryant’s lawsuit over the handling of photos taken at the scene of the helicopter crash that killed her husband, Kobe Bryant.
Vanessa Bryant sued the county in 2020, alleging that she and her family suffered severe emotional distress after learning that L.A. County sheriff’s deputies snapped and later shared gruesome images of the crash scene where her husband, daughter Gianna and seven others died in January 2020.
U.S. District Judge John F. Walter denied the county lawyers’ motion for summary judgment, which would have dismissed the case, saying that “there are genuine issues of material facts for trial.”
He did not address the specific issues in the case, saying it is not his role “to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.”
The lawsuit could go to trial as early as next month.
“This has always been about accountability,” Luis Li, Bryant’s attorney, said in a statement after the ruling. “We look forward to presenting the facts to a jury.”
Skip Miller, the outside lawyer representing the county, said that “we respectfully disagree with the court’s ruling.”
“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,” Miller, a partner at the Miller Barondess law firm, said in a statement.
Bryant sued the county for invasion of privacy and negligence after a Times investigation found that deputies had shared the grim images of the scene. The dissemination came to light after a deputy trainee showed images on his cellphone to patrons at a Norwalk bar.
It was later revealed that an L.A. County fire captain showed images to a group of off-duty firefighters. In the hours after the crash, Bryant spoke directly to Sheriff Alex Villanueva, asking that he ensure no one would be able to take photos of her husband‘s or daughter‘s bodies.
The county’s legal team had argued that Bryant never saw photos of her dead husband and daughter, and that she had no standing to sue because the sheriff and other county personnel had directed the photographs be deleted and they were never disseminated to the public at large.
“It is undisputed that the complained-of photos have never been in the media, on the internet, or otherwise publicly disseminated,” the county’s attorneys wrote in seeking to dismiss the lawsuit. “Instead, [Bryant] testified that this case is about her ‘having to fear those photographs surfacing.’ But a preemptive, speculative lawsuit about what ‘may’ or ‘could’ happen, as [Bryant] testified, fails as a matter of law.”
Bryant’s lawyers argue that the images spread to at least 28 sheriff’s deputies and a dozen firefighters. Because many of the people who possessed the images deleted them, reset their phones or swapped them for new phones, the attorneys say, it is now impossible to tell how far the photos spread.
Walter considered the case in light of a 2012 ruling from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals involving the death of a 2-year-old boy. In that case, a former prosecutor gave images of the boy’s corpse to journalists, prompting a lawsuit by the mother, Brenda Marsh, who argued she was horrified at the possibility of finding the photos on the internet.
“We find the Constitution protects a parent’s right to control the physical remains, memory and images of a deceased child against unwarranted public exploitation by the government,” the court ruled. The case “shocked the conscience,” the court said, finding that the dead child’s mother might easily stumble across the photos on the internet.
In the Bryant case, the county acknowledges that Deputy Joey Cruz flashed his cellphone at the Norwalk bar, and that a fire captain displayed crash photos to colleagues at a hotel banquet, but argues that the photos were never “publicly disseminated.” In contrast to the Marsh case, the lawyers point out, the media did not gain access to them.
After a witness in the Norwalk bar emailed sheriff’s officials, Villanueva quickly offered deputies amnesty from discipline if they came clean and deleted the photos.
The sheriff insists he did the right thing, that his strategy was a success. The families of the victims never saw the grisly photos. Nearly two years have passed since the crash, and the images have not hit the internet.
Villanueva himself was initially a defendant, but a U.S. District Court judge dismissed him from the case. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors has already agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle two of the suits filed by families whose loved ones were also killed in the crash. But Bryant and another family have refused to settle.
Lawyers for the county have demanded, and won, access to Bryant’s psychological records, in hopes of showing her anguish is independent of the photos.
Bryant is seeking compensatory and punitive damages to punish the deputy defendants and “make an example of them to the community.”