A federal judge on Tuesday sanctioned Los Angeles County for destroying photographs of human remains from the helicopter crash that killed basketball superstar Kobe Bryant and eight others, including his daughter Gianna Bryant.
Under an order from U.S. District Judge John Walter, lawyers representing Vanessa Bryant in an upcoming civil trial will be allowed to question witnesses about the deleted photos and the decisions that led to it. Jurors will be told they can consider whether evidence was destroyed when reaching their verdict.
County lawyer Mira Hashmall told Walter that Sheriff Alex Villaneuva’s directive to sheriff’s employees to delete all photographs “was intended to protect the plaintiffs” by insuring the photos were never publicly distributed.
“It’s been over 2 1/2 years and the pictures are still not in the public domain,” Hashmall said.
But Walter said the destroyed material “is crucial” to determining whether the county and the individual deputies and firefighters named as defendants should be held liable for distributing gruesome photos in violation of the victims’ families’ right to privacy.
“The court has no difficulty concluding that plaintiffs have been prejudiced,” said Walter, of the Central District of California.
The judge also on Tuesday consolidated Bryant’s lawsuit with a similar lawsuit on behalf of Christopher Chester, an Orange County financial adviser whose wife, Sarah George Chester, and 13-year-old daughter, Payton Chester, died in the Jan. 26, 2020, crash.
Trial is expected to begin Aug. 10 or Aug. 11 and last nine days.
Lawyers for Los Angeles County opposed consolidation, arguing in court documents that Chester was trying to “ride Bryant’s coattails” and benefit from critical evidence that only pertain to Bryant’s case.
Hashmall told Walter on Tuesday that both Bryant and Chester are claiming that particular photographs depict their loved ones, but Walter said the cases are so similar, including nearly matching witness lists, that consolidation is needed.
The judge also said he believes evidence exists that photographs of one of the Chesters were distributed at an awards banquet called the Golden Mike Awards.
“Defendants are simply wrong” when they say otherwise, Walter said, adding that he would have likely dismissed Chester’s case on summary judgment had he not seen that evidence.
When imposing the evidentiary sanction, Walter said county officials should have reasonably anticipated litigation based on a Feb. 27, 2020, Los Angeles Times article that published about the photos and a letter the county received from Bryant’s lawyer on March 2, 2020, which meant they had a legal obligation to preserve evidence. But the judge said the sheriff’s department didn’t send a notice to preserve evidence until May 11, 2020, and didn’t issue individual notices “through at least Nov. 21, 2021.”
Walter said the fire department promptly notified its employees to preserve evidence, but it’s unclear if a captain and public information officer who deleted photos and instructed subordinates to do so did so before or after the notice. Because the captain clearly did so after the Times first reported the photographs, the judge said, “it’s a matter best left for the jury.”
Walter rejected what he described as a “more drastic sanction” suggested by Bryant’s lawyers that would have precluded county lawyers from denying the photos were circulated and claiming that all photos had been contained, which the judge said “would effectively preclude the county from offering any evidence” to support its defense theory.
Also Tuesday, the judge granted a request by Vanessa Bryant’s attorneys to bar testimony about her wealth, but he rejected their request to disallow the testimony of Marc Cohen, a psychiatrist who interviewed Bryant and concluded she “cannot be distressed by photographs she has never seen.”
Bryant’s lawyers said county lawyers submitted Cohen’s report after court deadlines, but Walter determined it can still be used, but he’ll have to sit for a deposition this week with with Bryant and Chester’s lawyers, and the county will have to pay for it. The plaintiff attorneys also can designate their own expert to rebut Cohen’s testimony, Walter said.
The judge warned county lawyers about their plans for Cohen.
“It seems to me that the Dr. Cohen testimony could well backfire, but I’ll leave it up to you,” Walter said.
Hashmall said in an email after the hearing that Walter’s decision to consolidate the cases is unsurprising.
“He confirmed that each plaintiff must meet their separate burden of proof at trial,” said Hashmall, of Miller Barondess LLP in Los Angeles. She also said while both Bryant and Chester “want to argue there was a widespread custom and practice of improper sharing accident photos by first responders, the fact is there is no evidence of it and they won’t be able to prove it.”
Walter also ruled Tuesday that Bryant and Chester can pursue claims that seek to hold the county, the Los Angeles County sheriff’s and fire departments liable for their employee’s actions. They blame in part inadequate training for the illicit photos and said a jury could fairly find that a lack of training regarding photographing human remains left the sheriff’s and fire department employees unprepared. Their lawsuits include claims for negligence, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violations of the 14th Amendment
The county in November 2021 agreed to pay $1.25 million each to the families of crash victims Christina Mauser and Keri, John and Alyssa Altobelli to settle their lawsuits.
But Bryant and Chester have persisted to trial, with Bryant saying in an October 2021 deposition, “I want accountability.”
“I shouldn’t have to be going through this. It’s not just a lawsuit,” Bryant told the county’s lead lawyer, Louis “Skip” Miller, according to transcript excerpts filed in court.
One of Bryant’s lawyers, Luis Li of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, repeated her call for accountability in a July 8 hearing, telling Walter, “There are many aspects to this case and why this case has been brought. And some of them involve holding the County accountable and publicly accountable and publicly.”
The judge said he’s been “trying to find out, other than money, what the plaintiff expected me to do in this case.”
“I don’t have the ability to do anything other than preside over a trial where the jury is going to render a verdict and there’s going to be an amount of money,” Walter said. The judge said everyone “ducked the question in terms of what they’re going to ask for in terms of the amount of money.”’
Li said there’s more to their desired verdict than money. Should the jury award punitive damages as Li’s team plans to request, that type of public statement is “not insignificant.”
Walter warned the attorneys about needlessly including gruesome details about the victims’ deaths in the public court file, telling Chester’s lawyer, Jerome Jackson, that the coroner’s report on Sarah Chester “turned my stomach when I read it.” He also said he was “shocked” to see the autopsy quoted in filings for Chester’s opposition to the county’s motion summary judgment, which Walter rejected in January.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate that you — you put it in the record today what it is. It’s just too horrific. I understand what it is,” the judge said on July 8.
The California Legislature in 2020 passed a new law that prohibits first responders from taking unauthorized photos of deceased people at crash scenes.
(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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