Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year old daughter, Gianna, died in a helicopter crash in Los Angeles on January 26, 2020. Kobe and Gianna were on their way, along with seven other people, to a youth basketball game in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
On that same day, responders at the scene took photos of the crash site for personal use, not for investigative purposes, Kobe’s widow Vanessa claims.
The helicopter’s pilot, Ara Zobayan, dealt with intense fog while flying and crashed into a Calabasas mountainside. Just two days later, Bryant’s identity was officially confirmed with the utilization of his fingerprints. In February 2021, the NTSB confirmed that Zobayan was most likely disoriented after flying through the fog. Five NTSB board members revealed that Zobayan violated federal regulations during the flight.
Two and a half years after the crash, a civil invasion of privacy trial between Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, and the Los Angeles County sheriff’s and fire departments in United States District Court is slated to begin on Wednesday.
Why is Vanessa Bryant suing the Los Angeles County sheriff and fire departments?
Vanessa Bryant claimed that Los Angeles County deputies didn’t take photos of the helicopter crash for investigative purposes. Instead, she believes that deputies shared the photos with other firefighters that responded to the crash.
The lawsuit also states that a deputy showed particular photos to bar patrons while an additional firefighter shared them with co-workers when they were off-duty after going to the scene of the crash.
Bryant is seeking millions of dollars in compensation in the lawsuit.
“Mrs. Bryant feels ill at the thought that sheriff’s deputies, firefighters, and members of the public have gawked at gratuitous images of her deceased husband and child,” the lawsuit states. “She lives in fear that she or her children will one day confront horrific images of their loved ones online.”
How were the photos discovered?
A California police officer allegedly posted photos of the crash on social media, which contained images of the body of the Lakers legend. Within days of the crash, an estimated 10 members of the Los Angeles Police Department had seen the photos.
According to the lawsuit, one deputy reportedly took between 25 and 100 photos of the crash scene on his cell phone.
In another portion of the lawsuit, Vanessa Bryant alleged that officer Joey Cruz showed the crash photos to a bartender at the Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk, Calif. The lawsuit also alleges that Cruz showed the photos to his niece.
Another deputy, Michael Russell, also allegedly sent photos of the crash to a friend.
According to a Los Angeles Times report, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies that leaked that photos were told that they wouldn’t be reprimanded if the photos were deleted.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva stated that he ordered officers to delete the photos of Bryant and the victims from the crash. However, the Los Angeles Times also reported that the sheriff’s department tried to keep the situation quiet for five weeks after the crash.
Events leading up to the trial
In addition to suing the Los Angeles County Sheriff and Fire Departments, Vanessa Bryant has also sued the helicopter charter company, along with Zobayan’s estate.
Los Angeles County officials have argued that Bryant has suffered emotional distress from the death of her husband and daughter, rather than distress from the photos that were leaked. The county attempted to order a psychiatric evaluation of Vanessa Bryant to determine where her emotional distress stemmed from. However, her lawyers believed those to be “scorched-earth discovery tactics” that were used in an attempt to bully her and other victims’ families in an effort to get them to drop their lawsuits.
They also stated that the crash photos haven’t been leaking to the media or general public.
Los Angeles County has already paid out $2.5 million in another case that was brought forth by a pair of families that had relatives that died in the crash. Bryant has made it clear that she doesn’t want to settle and wants to take the matter to court. Since the crash, a California law has been put in place that makes it illegal for first responders to take unauthorized photos of deceased victims at an accident scene.