Vanessa Bryant’s lawyers argue jury should assume crash photos were widely shared

UNCASVILLE, CONNECTICUT - MAY 15: Vanessa Bryant speaks on behalf of Class of 2020 inductee, Kobe Bryant.
Vanessa Bryant speaks on behalf of Class of 2020 inductee Kobe Bryant alongside presenter Michael Jordan during the 2021 Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.
(Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

Vanessa Bryant’s lawyers filed a motion Monday in her lawsuit over the helicopter crash scene photos taken by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies that, if granted, would require jurors to assume the wider public sharing of the images because evidence was destroyed.

The motion for spoliation sanctions is the latest move in the lawsuit by the widow of Kobe Bryant for severe emotional distress after learning that deputies and firefighters shared gruesome images of the crash scene where her husband, daughter Gianna and seven others died in January 2020. The photos were shared internally and by one deputy who displayed his cellphone in a Norwalk bar and a fire captain who showed the images on his phone at an award show cocktail hour.

A judge’s decision in favor of the motion could thwart the county‘s efforts to have the case dismissed before trial.

Luis Li, Bryant’s lead attorney, argued that after learning of a Jan. 29 citizen complaint about the bar incident, Sheriff Alex Villaneuva ordered all deputies with images of the Calabasas crash to delete them immediately..

A Los Angeles Times investigation in March revealed that deputies had shared the grim images of the scene. Bryant’s attorneys have argued that because county agencies did not order their employees to preserve their phones, Vanessa Bryant was deprived of the ability to learn whom the images were shared with before the devices were wiped clean.

Attorneys for the county have acknowledged that deputies and three fire captains shared images from the crash site.

Skip Miller, an attorney for the county, said that by ordering the immediate deletion of the images, Villanueva was seeking to keep a promise he made to Vanessa Bryant that the photos would not be released to the public.

In a recent deposition in the case, Bryant recalled that she told Villanueva:“If you can’t bring my husband and baby back, please make sure no one takes photographs of them. Please secure the area.”

In court documents, Miller said Bryant’s lawyers want an “adverse inference” at summary judgment and trial, and that that lost evidence would have shown “further electronic dissemination” of the photos.

He contends that Vanessa Bryant could not be suffering severe distress from crash photos she has never seen and that were never shared publicly because of the deletions. Attorneys for the county hope to get the case dismissed before trial if they can prove the wider public never saw the images.

Bryant’s attorneys have argued that the county did not seek to preserve the software on the cellphones involved after learning of the citizen complaint, and have said in court documents that one sheriff’s captain who raised concerns about the order to delete the material was demoted.

Lawyers for the county have countered by saying that Bryant hopes to punish the county for carrying out her wish.

“While the County continues to have the deepest sympathy for the grief Ms. Bryant has suffered, the request by her lawyers for sanctions is an attempt to distract attention from the fact that none of the routine investigative photos taken by County employees have ever been publicly disseminated,” Miller said in a statement to The Times.

But Bryant’s attorney has noted in court documents that the images were not routinely shared and others out of the chain of command received photos.

Attorneys for Christopher Chester, who has filed a lawsuit that mirrors Vanessa Bryant’s legal action, also joined the motion. He lost his wife, Sarah Chester, and 13-year-old daughter, Payton, in the Calabasas crash.

The case is scheduled for a potential trial next February. In recent weeks, U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles F. Eick has ruled that the county’s motion to compel Bryant to undergo an independent medical evaluation was untimely given that trial date.

The decision marked another victory for Bryant’s legal team, who have also persuaded the judge to allow them to depose the sheriff and county fire chief. But county lawyers are also seeking mental health records for Bryant to determine if she had any pre-existing conditions of emotional stress.

The county has already settled lawsuits by Matthew Mauser for $1.25 million and siblings J.J. Altobelli and Alexis Altobelli for another $1.25 million. Mauser’s wife, Christine, and the Altobellis’ mother, father and younger sister — Keri, John and Alyssa — died in the crash.