Lawyer: Photos of Kobe Bryant’s remains shared ‘for a laugh’

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CALABASAS, Calif. (NewsNation) — An institutional “culture of callousness” led Los Angeles County deputies and firefighters to shoot and share photos of the remains of Kobe Bryant and other victims of the 2020 helicopter crash that killed the Lakers star, his 13-year-old daughter and seven others, a lawyer for Bryant’s widow told a jury Wednesday.

Vanessa Bryant’s attorney Luis Li told jurors in his opening statement in U.S. District Court in her invasion of privacy trial against the county that the cellphone photos shot at the crash scene by a deputy and a fire captain were “visual gossip” viewed “for a laugh,” and had no official purpose.

The NBA legend and the others died in a fiery crash when their helicopter plunged into a Southern California hillside in January 2020. Vanessa Bryant claims deputies did not take the photos of the crash for investigative purposes but instead shared them with firefighters who responded to the scene. 

“Mrs. Bryant feels ill at the thought that sheriff’s deputies, firefighters, and members of the public have gawked at gratuitous images of her deceased husband and child,” according to the lawsuit. “She lives in fear that she or her children will one day confront horrific images of their loved ones online.”

In the aftermath of the crash, at least eight Los Angeles County deputies were accused of taking or sharing graphic photos of the crash scene, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said. He said he quickly ordered deputies to delete the images. Later, it was learned that a county fire captain showed images to off-duty firefighters and a deputy showed images to patrons in a bar. Villanueva said the department has a policy against taking and sharing crime scene photos, but it did not apply to accident scenes.

An attorney for the county defended the taking of the photos as an essential tool for first responders seeking to share information when they thought they might still save lives at the chaotic, dangerous and hard-to-reach crash scene in the Calabasas hills west of Los Angeles

“Site photography is essential,” county lawyer J. Mira Hashmall said.

Vanessa Bryant filed the lawsuit last year claiming she and her family suffered emotional distress over the sharing of the gruesome photographs. Earlier this year, lawyers for Los Angeles County failed to persuade a judge to end the lawsuit, with the judge saying that, “There are genuine issues of material facts for trial.”

  • Vanessa Bryant

Li told jurors that learning a month after the crash about the photos’ circulation — not from the county but the Los Angeles Times — compounded her still-raw suffering.

“January 26th, 2020, was the worst day of Vanessa Bryant’s life. The county made it much worse,” Li said. “They poured salt in an open wound and rubbed it in.”

Li played jurors security video of an off-duty sheriff’s deputy drinking at a bar showing the photos to the bartender, who shakes his head in dismay. The lawyer then showed an image of the men laughing together later. Li described firefighters looking at the phone photos two weeks later at an awards banquet, and showed the jury an animated chart documenting their spread to nearly 30 people.

The county has argued that Bryant has suffered emotional distress from the deaths, not the photos, which were ordered deleted by Villanueva. They said the photos have never been in the media, on the internet or otherwise publicly disseminated and that the lawsuit is speculative about harm she may suffer.

But Li said the county failed to conduct a thorough investigation to make sure every copy of the photo was accounted for, and because of the fear that they will someday surface, and her surviving children may see them online, Vanessa Bryant “will be haunted by what they did forever.”

During the defense’s opening statement, Hashmall told jurors that the fact that the pictures have not appeared in more than two years showed that leaders in the sheriff’s and fire department did their jobs.

“They’re not online. They’re not in the media. They’ve never even been seen by the plaintiffs themselves,” Hashmall said. She added, “That is not an accident. That is a function of how diligent they were.”

Hashmall told the jury that the reason Li even had the video of the bartender to show, which she suggested was deceptively edited to show the men laughing together, was because the Sheriff’s Department had gotten it the same day they received a complaint from another bar patron who witnessed the photo sharing.

She said the deputy was struggling emotionally from the difficulty of dealing with the crash scene, and that the bartender was a longtime friend in whom he was confiding.

The county already agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle a similar case brought by two families whose relatives died in the Jan. 26, 2020, crash.

Vanessa Bryant did not settle her case, indicating she’s seeking more.

The trial was set to begin in February but was postponed due to a backlog of cases. The judge asked the county and Vanessa Bryant’s lawyers to settle the dispute out of court, with a mediation deadline set in April. No resolution was reached.

Since the crash, new laws have been passed, including one that makes it a crime for first responders to take unauthorized photos of deceased people at the scene of an accident or crime.

Federal safety officials announced the probable cause in February 2021, concluding that the pilot flew through clouds in an apparent violation of federal standards and became disoriented before the crash. NTSB published the final 86-page report detailing discoveries found in the year-long investigation.

Vanessa Bryant sued the pilot, Ara Zobayan, and the companies that owned and operated the helicopter for negligence and the wrongful deaths of her husband and daughter. Families of other victims sued the helicopter companies but not the pilot.

Vanessa Bryant said Island Express Helicopters Inc., which operated the aircraft, and its owner, Island Express Holding Corp., did not properly train or supervise Zobayan. She said the pilot was careless and negligent to fly in fog and should have aborted the flight. Bryant settled the lawsuit last year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Top left to right: Gianna Bryant, Kobe Bryant, Payton Chester, Sarah Chester. Bottom left to right: Christina Mauser, Alyssa Altobelli, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli and Ara Zobayan.

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