Vanessa Bryant, the wife of late basketball star Kobe Bryant, is expected to testify in a trial this week after she sued Los Angeles County and some of its agencies and employees for sharing photos of the helicopter crash that killed her husband and daughter.
The January 2020 crash killed Mr. Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others as they were traveling to a youth basketball tournament at Mr. Bryant’s academy in Thousand Oaks, California, northwest of Los Angeles.
Mr. Bryant, 41, joined the NBA right out of high school and spent his entire 20-year professional career with the Los Angeles Lakers. He won five championships and retired in 2016 as one of the NBA’s all-time leading scorers and one of the world’s most popular sports figures.
In her lawsuit, Ms. Bryant accused Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies and fire officials of negligence and invasion of her privacy by sharing photos of the crash “without any legitimate purpose.”
Ms Bryant said she had “suffered (and continues to experience) severe emotional distress” and that she feared the photos would appear online.
“I don’t want my little girls or me to ever see their remains in this matter,” Ms. Bryant said during a deposition in October 2021. “I don’t even think it’s right that the photos were taken in the first place because it’s already hard enough that I have to go through this heartache and this loss.”
Ms. Bryant has three other daughters with Mr. Bryant: Capri, 3; Bianca, 5; and Natalia, 19 years old.
Officials with the Los Angeles County and sheriff’s and fire departments acknowledged sharing the photos but said they had been deleted.
The trial began on August 10. Here’s what else you need to know about Ms. Bryant’s lawsuit.
What caused the accident?
More than a year after the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled that the pilot’s “poor judgment” in flying at excessive speed in foggy weather was the likely cause of the crash. Pilot Ara Zobayan was among those killed in the accident.
[Read the 86-page final investigation report from the N.T.S.B., which includes a six-page executive summary.]
The safety board found that Mr. Zobayan was so disoriented in the clouds that he thought he was climbing to the left before the helicopter crashed into a hill near Calabasas, California.
The board also faulted the charter company, Island Express Helicopters, for “inadequate review and oversight of its safety management processes”.
Who saw the photos? where are the photos now
In a January court filing, Ms. Bryant’s attorneys said close-up images of Mr. Bryant and Gianna Bryant’s remains were “transmitted to at least 28 Sheriff’s Department devices and at least a dozen firefighters,” including the bar and award. Gala. In her lawsuit, Ms. Bryant claimed that social media users said they saw the photos.
Ms. Bryant named four sheriff’s deputies in the lawsuit, accusing them of sharing the photos with each other, other deputies or family members. The Los Angeles Times reported in February 2020 that one of the deputies — Joey Cruz in Ms. Bryant’s lawsuit — showed the photos at the bar, prompting the bar owner to file a complaint with the sheriff’s department.
Emily Tauscher, the captain of the Los Angeles County District Court, testified at the trial that Mr. Bryant was identified by his skin tone and arm tattoos after the crash.
Los Angeles County and law enforcement officials said the photos have been deleted and have never been made public.
What was the country’s response to the lawsuit?
Lawyers representing Los Angeles County said taking photos of fatal crimes and crime scenes is common practice for investigative and information sharing purposes.
“The county continues to extend its deepest sympathies to the families who have suffered this terrible loss,” Mira Hashmal, the county’s outside counsel, said in a statement. “The district also worked tirelessly for two and a half years to ensure that its site photos of the accident were never made public. Evidence shows they never were. And this is fact, not speculation. “
The county has yet to call witnesses, but her lawyers are asking in court to include some of Ms. Bryant’s Instagram posts at trial to counter her claims of severe emotional distress caused by the photos she shared. Ms Bryant’s lawyers said her posts on Instagram, where she has 15.5 million followers, were not relevant to the case.
The controversial posts include Ms Bryant and her family on holiday. Ms Bryant also shared pictures of herself dressed as Disney character Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians” movie Franchise.
“The plaintiff’s emotional state is at the center of this case, and little more is revealed about the plaintiff’s emotional state than his own words about his life, his sadness, the targets of his anger, his work, and other stressors that may contribute to any emotional state.” Trouble,” the county said in court filings this month of trial exhibits.
What has happened so far in the trial?
The trial was, as expected, emotional.
Ms Bryant sobbed as her lawyer, Lewis Lee, opened her eyes.
Accounts provided by emergency medical workers who took the graphic photos are conflicting. Brian Jordan, a retired fire captain who said he was assigned to take photos of the crash scene, left the witness stand three times because he needed a break to finish his testimony.
“I don’t remember what I took,” Jordan said. “The way the whole scene looked, it will haunt me forever.”
Deputy Rafael Mejia, who is named in the lawsuit, testified that he received 15 to 20 photos from another deputy on the day of the crash. He said he sent about 10 images to two deputies, including Joey Cruz, who would later share them publicly with the bartender. Mejia expressed regret for sharing the photos, saying: “Curiosity got the best of us.”
Cruz confirmed that he made a “misjudgment” when he shared the photos.
Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, who was Gianna Bryant’s godfather and was Mr. Bryant’s agent before becoming a team executive, detailed his relationship with Ms. Bryant and testified about the anxiety he felt over the shared photos.
“He wants an air of love and joy and peace, and he does everything he can to maintain that,” Mr. Pelinka said. “You experience the grief of loss, but there’s also the anxiety of these deplorable acts.”
What else did Ms. Bryant say during her deposition?
Ms Bryant said she learned of the accident when a family aide knocked on her door late on the morning of January 26, 2020. When she tried to call Mr Bryant, messages appeared on her phone about people mourning Mr Bryant.
Ms Bryant said she went to the airport to secure a helicopter to bring her to the crash site but was told the weather conditions were not safe. Mr. Pelinka drove Ms. Bryant to the sheriff’s station in Malibu, near the scene of the crash, he said.
At the station, “no one would answer” questions about her husband and daughter, Ms. Bryant said. He was ushered back and forth between rooms and after a long wait, the pastor came in and Sheriff Alex Villanueva entered with a publicist. Ms Bryant said she wanted privacy and asked the publicist to leave the room.
Villanueva confirmed the death, Ms. Bryant said, and asked if there was anything she could do for him.
“And I said, ‘If you can’t get my husband and baby back, please make sure no one takes pictures of them.’ Please secure the area,’” Ms. Bryant said during her deposition. “And he said, ‘I will.’ And I said, ‘No, I need you to call me right now, and I need you to make sure you secure this area.’
How much is Ms. Bryant suing?
Ms. Bryant is suing for compensatory and punitive damages.
“That will be up to the jury,” Ms. Bryant said when asked during her deposition how much money she was seeking. “I’m not – I’m not asking for a dollar amount.”
Are the families of other crash victims involved in Ms. Bryant’s case?
Joining the suit is Christopher Chester, whose wife, Sarah, 45, and 13-year-old daughter, Peyton, died. The families of two other victims settled for $1.25 million last year.
Has another claim related to the accident been resolved?
Ms. Bryant and other victims’ family members reached a settlement in June 2021 with Island Express Helicopters, its owner, Island Express Holding Corporation, and Mr. Zobayan’s estate.
The terms of the settlement were confidential.
Vic Jolie and Douglas Morino Contributed reporting from Los Angeles.