Judge postpones trial in Vanessa Bryant’s lawsuit over crash scene photos
Citing a backlog of criminal cases and coronavirus concerns, a federal judge Friday postponed the trial of a lawsuit brought by Kobe Bryant’s widow against Los Angeles County involving photos taken at the scene of the helicopter crash that took the lives of the Lakers legend, the couple’s 13-year-old daughter and seven others.
U.S. District Judge John F. Walter also ordered the parties into a second round of closed-door settlement talks that could avoid entirely the trial now set for July 18.
“I really urge counsel to settle this case,” Walter said at the conclusion of a two-hour-plus pretrial conference conducted via Zoom. “I understand it’s a difficult case to settle … it just seems to me to be a case that needs to be settled.”
Trial was expected to begin with jury selection at the downtown Los Angeles federal courthouse on Feb. 22. Attorneys for both sides filed thousands of pages of briefs, motions and other documents after mediation attempts failed in June.
Walter indicated that if the case went to trial, the best outcome for Vanessa Bryant would probably be a verdict of punitive damages against the three county employees who could be shown to have taken and/or shared photos of the crash scene.
In a lawsuit against L.A. County, Kobe Bryant’s widow says she lives in fear that grisly images from the helicopter crash scene will go viral. County attorneys say the photos are gone and cannot be recovered.
The judge appeared to question the overall value for Bryant of such a cash verdict against the employees, particularly since a far more effective remedy has already been put into place. As a result of issues brought up in the case, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law legislation that makes it illegal for first responders to take unauthorized pictures of people killed at the scene of an accident or crime.
“Any award against individual defendants would be paid by the agency [that employs them],” Walter said Friday. “Punitive damages against one sheriff’s deputy and two fire officials … are not going to be substantial.”
Walter further said that to force plaintiffs to sit through a trial “where we’re all going to do our best not to raise the very painful issues that exist in this case” would not appear to be “beneficial” to the emotional health of relatives of those lost in the crash.
Bryant’s lawsuit, which names a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy and two county fire captains among defendants, is requesting damages for negligence, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Three days after the Jan. 26, 2020, helicopter crash in the hills of Calabasas, a sheriff’s deputy visited a Norwalk bar where he allegedly showed a bartender gruesome photos taken at the crash site. That resulted in a citizen complaint to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.
Bryant, 39, also alleged that less than a month after the crash, an L.A. County Fire Department official showed crash scene photos on his cellphone to friends attending a broadcast news awards gala.
Statue temporarily marks the spot where Kobe and Gianna Bryant and seven others perished as fans flock to the hillside to mark the second anniversary of their deaths.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva later acknowledged that the department ordered deputies to delete any images from the crash scene from their devices.
In a declaration, Bryant said media reports of shared photos “caused me tremendous pain and distress,” and she feared for the future if the images were posted on the internet. An attorney for Bryant said the minimum he would request of the jury would be $1 million, but did not give the maximum.
The county maintains that the digital images were never publicly disseminated in any fashion, so Bryant’s claim of having to fear the photographs surfacing does not constitute grounds for her suit.
The judge Friday deferred on announcing whether he would try a similar lawsuit — brought by Chris Chester, who lost his wife and daughter in the crash — separately or would consolidate the Chester and Bryant complaints if the cases go to trial.
Walter ordered that the parties complete settlement talks by April 11.
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