Los Angeles County filed a motion for summary judgment on Monday asking a judge to dismiss the lawsuit filed by Vanessa Bryant which alleges that first responders improperly shared graphic photos of the 2020 helicopter crash that killed her husband, NBA legend Kobe Bryant, her daughter, Gianna Bryant, and seven more people.
In the 32-page motion, attorneys for the county argue that Bryant’s lawsuit for vicarious municipal liability, negligence, and invasion of privacy “suffers from a threshold defect” because the gruesome photos of the crash site in question “have never been in the media, on the Internet, or otherwise publicly disseminated.”
Bryant first alleged that “no fewer than eight sheriff’s deputies were at the scene snapping cell-phone photos of the dead children, parents, and coaches” on that fateful day. In her first amended complaint, which the county responded to on Monday, Vanessa Bryant alleged “at least ten members of the [LASD] obtained and possessed images of the victims’ remains on their personal cell phones without any legitimate reason for having them” and that those images then became the source of gossip within the department.
“As the Department would later admit, there was no investigative purpose for deputies to take pictures at the crash site,” Bryant’s lawsuit noted, in reference to Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. “Rather, the deputies took photos for their own personal purposes.”
The LASD did, in fact, verify the pictures were taken.
“We identified the deputies involved, they came to the station on their own and had admitted they had taken them and they had deleted them,” the sheriff told local NBC affiliate KNBC in March 2020. “And we’re content that those involved did that.”
The outlet reported on the circumstances in which Villanueva is said to have learned about the existence of those photographs:
The sheriff’s department was alerted to the photos by someone who overheard a conversation at a bar between a bartender and a person who claimed to have photos from the accident scene, Villanueva said. That person was said to be [a] trainee deputy.
LASD Deputies Joey Cruz, Rafael Mejia, Michael Russell and Raul Versale were later identified as some of the culprits who took and shared the photographs. In at least one instance, the photographs were shared in order to “impress a woman at a bar.”
“The phone did not leave his hand,” the county’s attorneys argued in admitting to Cruz’s barroom antics. “This does not suffice to support a claim for invasion of privacy.”
To hear Los Angeles tell it, however, because the photographs were deleted soon thereafter from each of the offending officers’ cellular phones, and because only one non-county employee may have actually seen them, “there was no public dissemination of the photos.”
Bryant is likely to take issue with this categorization of the events.
Her lawsuit previously cast the document destruction efforts taken by LASD officials as an effort to cover up bad behavior by Villanueva.
“He directed a cover-up, summoning the deputies to the Lost Hills station and telling them that, if they deleted the photos, they would face no discipline,” the lawsuit alleges. “The deputies purported to accept the Sheriff’s offer, receiving a free pass in exchange for destroying evidence of their misconduct.”
Additionally, Bryant’s lawsuit alleges that other people did, in fact, see the photos of her dead loved ones.
“Cruz showed photos of the Bryants’ remains to his niece,” Bryant claims. “Before displaying the photos, Cruz made a crude remark about the state of the victims’ remains.”
The lawsuit also cites additional evidence:
While at the Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk, California on January 28, 2020, Cruz boasted that he had worked at the scene of the accident where Kobe Bryant had died. Cruz then showed photos of the Bryants’ remains to a fellow bar patron and the restaurant’s bartender, and he is seen on the bar’s security camera zooming in and out of the images while displaying them to the bartender. One of the photos showed the body of a girl, and Cruz remarked that another showed the remains of Kobe Bryant. Shortly after seeing the photos, the bartender loudly boasted to restaurant employees and patrons that he had just seen a photo of Kobe Bryant’s body and described the image in graphic detail.
In response to the claim about showing the pictures to the deputy’s niece, Los Angeles County attorneys say that Cruz tried to show them to her but she “refused to look at them.”
Bryant’s lawsuit, however, lists two additional instances in which the photographs of the crash site were shared.
“[O]n or around January 28, 2020, Russell shared the photos with a personal friend with whom Russell plays video games nightly,” the lawsuit continues. “Although the friend is a sheriff’s deputy, he was assigned to the Santa Clarita station, not the Lost Hills station, and had no involvement whatsoever in the response to the helicopter accident. In a text exchange initiated by Russell, Russell told the friend that he had pictures of the accident scene. Russell then texted photos of the Bryants’ remains to his friend’s personal cell phone, noting that one of the victims depicted was Kobe Bryant. In a later interview with Department investigators, Russell’s friend indicated that one of the photos showed the remains of a child and that the remains appeared to be the primary focus of the photo.”
Los Angeles, on the other hand, waives away the Russell disclosures by noting that he shared the photos with an “internal” member of the LASD who “planned on responding to the scene the following day.”
Additionally, Deputy Versales shared the images with another member of the LASD and when questioned, said they were shared “to answer some questions regarding the color, numbers and identifying features of the aircraft.”
“This was false,” Bryant alleged. “In an interview with [LASD] investigators, the officer to whom Versales sent the photos stated that he received them during the evening of January 26, 2020—long after the helicopter had been identified—and there was no reason for him to receive them.”
Los Angeles County did not address that claim in their motion for summary judgment but say that Bryant’s lawsuit should be dismissed because the widow’s “fear” of additional public disclosure is “not reasonable.”
“There is no ‘resulting injury’ here,” the county argues. “Plaintiff’s alleged harm is her fear that photos might one day be publicly disseminated. This is speculative.”
Attorneys for the sprawling collection of suburbs surrounding a tiny urban core insist that county officials “have great sympathy” for Bryant “and her tragic loss” and “reiterate their condolences.”
But Los Angeles County is adamant they don’t want the widow to receive any public funds over the photographs taken on Jan. 26, 2020.
“It was a horrific accident that took nine innocent lives,” the filing says. “But the County did not cause it. County personnel worked tirelessly to protect the crash site, identify the victims, and notify the families. As for this lawsuit, it is without legal merit and should be dismissed.”
Read the full motion below:
[image via Frank Micelotta/Getty Images]
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