Vanessa Bryant, the wife of the late basketball star Kobe Bryant, is anticipated to testify at a trial this week after she sued Los Angeles County and a few of its agencies and employees for sharing photos of human stays from the helicopter crash that killed her husband and daughter.
The January 2020 crash killed Mr. Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and 7 others as they traveled to a youth basketball tournament at Mr. Bryant’s academy in Thousand Oaks, Calif., northwest of Los Angeles.
Mr. Bryant, 41, joined the N.B.A. out of highschool, spending his entire 20-year skilled profession with the Los Angeles Lakers. He won five championships and retired in 2016 as one in all the N.B.A.’s top profession scorers and one in all the world’s hottest sports figures.
In her lawsuit, Mrs. Bryant accused Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies and fire department employees of negligence and invading her privacy by sharing crash photos “with none legitimate purpose.”
Mrs. Bryant said she “has suffered (and continues to suffer) severe emotional distress” and that she feared that the images would seem online.
“I are not looking for my little girls or I to ever must see their stays in that matter,” Mrs. Bryant said during a deposition in October 2021. “Nor do I believe it’s right that the images were taken in the primary place since it’s already tough enough that I even have to experience this heartache and this loss.”
Mrs. Bryant has three other daughters with Mr. Bryant: Capri, 3; Bianka, 5; and Natalia, 19.
Officials with Los Angeles County and the sheriff’s and fire departments have acknowledged that photos were shared, but said they were deleted.
The trial began Aug. 10. Here’s what else to learn about Mrs. Bryant’s lawsuit.
What caused the crash?
Greater than a 12 months after the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the pilot’s “poor decision” to fly at excessive speeds in foggy weather was the probable reason for the accident. The pilot, Ara Zobayan, was amongst those killed within the crash.
[Read the 86-page final investigation report from the N.T.S.B., which includes a six-page executive summary.]
The protection board found that Mr. Zobayan had develop into so disoriented within the clouds that he thought he was ascending when he was turning left just before the helicopter crashed right into a hill near Calabasas, Calif.
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, Mrs. Bryant’s lawyers said close-up pictures of Mr. Bryant’s and Gianna Bryant’s stays “were passed around on a minimum of 28 Sheriff’s Department devices and by a minimum of a dozen firefighters,” including at a bar and an awards gala. In her lawsuit, Mrs. Bryant claimed that social media users had said that they had seen the photos.
Mrs. Bryant named 4 sheriff’s deputies in her lawsuit and accused them of sharing the photos with one another, other deputies or relations. The Los Angeles Times reported in February 2020 that one in all the deputies — identified as Joey Cruz in Mrs. Bryant’s lawsuit — showed the photos at a bar, prompting a bar patron to file a grievance with the sheriff’s department.
Emily Tauscher, a captain on the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, testified at trial that after the crash Mr. Bryant was identified by his skin tone and arm tattoos.
Los Angeles County and law enforcement officials have said that the photos were deleted and never “made it into the general public arena.”
What has been the county’s response to the lawsuit?
Lawyers representing Los Angeles County said that taking photographs of fatal crime and accident scenes was a standard practice for investigative and information-sharing purposes.
“The County continues to precise its deepest sympathies for the families that suffered this terrible loss,” Mira Hashmall, the lead outside counsel for the county, said in a press release. “The County has also worked tirelessly for 2 and half years to be sure its site photos of the crash were never publicly disseminated. The evidence shows they never were. And that’s fact, not speculation.”
The county has not called any witnesses yet, but in a court filing its lawyers are pushing to incorporate a few of Mrs. Bryant’s Instagram posts at trial to counter her claims of severe emotional distress attributable to the shared photos. Mrs. Bryant’s lawyers have said her posts on Instagram, where she has 15.5 million followers, will not be relevant to this case.
The disputed posts include Mrs. Bryant and her family on vacations. Mrs. Bryant also shared images of herself dressed because the Disney character Cruella de Vil from the “101 Dalmatians” movie franchise, including one which mentioned “revenge” as a stage of grief.
“Plaintiff’s emotional state is at the middle of this case, and there’s little more revealing of Plaintiff’s emotional state than her own words about her life, sadness, the targets of her anger, her activities, and other stressors that would contribute to any emotional distress,” the county said in a court filing this month about trial exhibits.
What has happened to this point through the trial?
The trial, as anticipated, has been emotional.
Mrs. Bryant wept through the opening statements made by her lawyer, Luis Li.
The accounts provided by emergency medical staff who took graphic photographs are conflicting. Brian Jordan, a retired fire captain who said he was ordered to take photos of the crash scene, left the witness stand thrice because he needed breaks to complete his testimony.
“I don’t remember what I took pictures of,” Jordan testified. “The way in which the entire scene looked, it’s going to haunt me eternally.”
Deputy Rafael Mejia, who is known as within the lawsuit, testified he received 15 to twenty photographs from one other deputy the day of the crash. He said he sent about 10 of the photographs to 2 deputies, including Joey Cruz, who later would share them in public with a bartender. Mejia expressed regret over sharing the photos, saying, “Curiosity got the perfect of us.”
Cruz testified that he made a “misjudgment” when he shared the photos.
Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka, who was Gianna Bryant’s godfather and had been Mr. Bryant’s agent before becoming a team executive, detailed his relationship with Mrs. Bryant and testified concerning the anxiety she had experienced due to the shared photos.
“She wants an air of affection and joy and peace and he or she does every thing she will be able to do to preserve that,” Mr. Pelinka said. “You experience the grief from loss, but there’s also the anxiety from these deplorable actions.”
What else did Mrs. Bryant say during her deposition?
Mrs. Bryant said she learned of the accident when a family assistant knocked on her door within the late morning of Jan. 26, 2020. As she tried calling Mr. Bryant, notifications of individuals mourning Mr. Bryant popped up on her phone.
Mrs. Bryant said she went to an airport in an try and secure a helicopter to take her to the crash site but was told the weather conditions weren’t secure. Mr. Pelinka drove Mrs. Bryant to the sheriff’s station in Malibu, near the crash site, she said.
On the station, “nobody would answer” questions on her husband and daughter, Mrs. Bryant said. She was escorted backwards and forwards between rooms, and after an extended wait, a pastor walked in and Sheriff Alex Villanueva entered with a publicist. Mrs. Bryant said she wanted privacy and asked the publicist to go away the room.
Villanueva confirmed the deaths, Mrs. Bryant said, and asked if he could do anything for her.
“And I said: ‘For those who can’t bring my husband and baby back, please be sure that nobody takes photographs of them. Please secure the realm,’” Mrs. Bryant said through the deposition. “And he said, ‘I’ll.’ And I said, ‘No, I would like you to get on the phone right away and I would like you to be sure you secure the realm.’”
How much is Mrs. Bryant suing for?
Mrs. Bryant is suing for compensatory and punitive damages.
“That will be as much as the jury,” Mrs. Bryant responded when asked during her deposition how much money she sought. “I don’t — I’m not asking for a dollar amount.”
Are the families of other crash victims involved in Mrs. Bryant’s case?
Christopher Chester, whose wife, Sarah, 45, and daughter, Payton, 13, died within the crash, is joining the lawsuit. Two other victims’ families settled for $1.25 million each last 12 months.
Has some other litigation involving the crash been settled?
Mrs. Bryant and the relations of the opposite victims reached a settlement in June 2021 with Island Express Helicopters, its owner, Island Express Holding Corporation and the estate of Mr. Zobayan.
Terms of the settlement were confidential.
Vik Jolly and Douglas Morino contributed reporting from Los Angeles.