Kobe Bryant’s widow Vanessa gives emotional testimony in trial

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CALABASAS, Calif. (NewsNation) — Vanessa Bryant was extremely emotional on the stand Friday morning, crying so hard at times that she had to stop, on a day when she listened to graphic testimony from medical examiners and other officials.

“I felt like I wanted to run down the block and scream,” Bryant told jurors at the civil trial in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. “I can’t escape my body. I can’t escape what I feel.”

This is the first time the widow of five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant testified in the invasion of privacy trial against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s and Fire departments.

In doing so, Vanessa Bryant went into great detail about how devastating it was for her when she learned that LA County sheriff’s deputies and firefighters at the scene took pictures of human remains.

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.

Vanessa Bryant is suing the county for millions of dollars in damages for negligence and invasion of privacy, claiming she and her family suffered emotional distress over the sharing of the gruesome photographs.

Bryant testified that she thought the first responders would have had compassion and respect, saying that Kobe Bryant and their daughter, Gianna, deserved dignity. She said every night she prays for her loved ones and is haunted by what was done to them,

“I live in fear. I live in fear every day of being on social media and having these images pop up,” she testified. “I don’t ever want to see my babies in that way. Nobody should ever have to see their family in that way.”

She added  that she experiences anxiety and panic attacks over the possibility of seeing photos from the 2020 crash.

Bryant also endured a cross-examination by the defense, whose goal was to convince the jury not to decide the case based on sympathy and to establish that very few people saw the photographs.

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. 

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.” 

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.

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.

Some of the first responders have testified at the trial, with some apologizing, and the county says all the images have been deleted.

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

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.

Bryant did not settle her case, indicating she’s seeking more. The trial started officially earlier this month.

The trial was set to begin in February but was postponed due to a backlog of cases. The judge asked the county and 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 yearlong investigation.

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.

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.

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