NBA rumors: Judge combines lawsuits from Vanessa Bryant and Christopher Chester

A federal judge has ruled to combine similar lawsuits filed against Los Angeles County by Vanessa Bryant and an Orange County man whose wife and daughter were among nine people, including Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna, killed in a January 2020 helicopter crash. The lawsuits, filed by Vanessa Bryant and Christopher Chester, both allege that the L.A. County sheriff’s and fire departments, among other defendants, violated their 14th Amendment rights after county employees shared photos of the crash scene in Calabasas.

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A copy of U.S. District Judge John F. Walter’s order was not available Tuesday, but Mira Hashmall, the lead attorney for the county in the Bryant case, confirmed the decision to The Times in a statement. “We are not surprised Judge Walter decided to try the Bryant and Chester cases together, but he confirmed that each plaintiff must meet their separate burden of proof at trial,” Hashmall said. “And while plaintiffs 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.”
The county says her lawsuit is without merit but still has shown a willingness to settle with Bryant. It even settled with two other families who lost loved ones in the same crash that killed all nine aboard. Last year, it agreed to pay those families $1.25 million each to end their own similar lawsuits over photos of human remains from the crash scene. But Bryant so far has refused to settle in her quest for accountability after she said the county defendants invaded her privacy with their conduct
USA TODAY Sports recently obtained a transcript of this proceeding, which provides additional details about this case and where it might be headed after she initially filed suit in September 2020. The case had been scheduled to go to trial Feb. 22, but Walter delayed it, citing a backlog of cases from the pandemic. He ordered the parties to participate in further settlement talks by April 11 and said going to trial is “certainly not beneficial to the mental well-being of the plaintiffs in the case.”
The county wants separate trials for the Bryant case and the Chester case even though they cover much of the same ground with similar allegations about county defendants improperly taking and sharing photos of bodies from the crash site. “I don't think it would be fair to us for Mr. Chester's case to coattail and benefit from the celebrity of Ms. Bryant,” Miller told the judge. Miller also said he didn’t think there was “any evidence of any pictures regarding” Chester’s wife and daughter.
Bryant and other families who lost loved ones in the crash previously reached an undisclosed settlement with the operator of the doomed helicopter after they sued the company for wrongful deaths. Judge Walter questioned how Bryant and Chester could distinguish between the emotional distress they suffered over their loss of their family members and the emotional distress they say they suffered over the photos being taken and shared. “How do you quantify it?” Walter asked. The attorneys for Bryant and Chester said it will depend on the testimony and what the jury decides. The judge indicated he would like it settled before that.
Los Angeles County has filed a motion for summary judgment against the widow of Kobe Bryant, arguing that she never saw photos of her dead husband and daughter and that she has no standing to sue the county over photos that were deleted and never shared with the public at large.
The widow of Kobe Bryant made a simple request last year when she first learned that that her husband and daughter had died in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles. In a private meeting with Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, Vanessa Bryant told him, “If you can't bring my husband and baby back, please make sure no one takes photographs of them. Please secure the area.” Villanueva promised her he would, according to a transcript of her testimony last month in a pretrial deposition. But now that issue is a big point of dispute in Bryant’s lawsuit against the county over photos of dead bodies from the crash scene.
On Monday, the two sides presented dueling arguments about this in a court document filed in federal court. It marks the latest flareup in Bryant’s lawsuit, which accuses county sheriff’s and fire department employees of improperly sharing photos of human remains from the crash scene. “Sheriff Villanueva was keeping his promise to Bryant by making sure no photos got out,” the county said in a court document filed Monday. “The deputies, on and before January 30, 2020, deleted the photos from their phones — months before this dispute. Within two days, LASD interviewed 28 deputies, reserve deputies, sergeants, and civilian volunteers. The department determined that all personnel who had taken, shared, or received crash site photos had, in fact, deleted them. No one had sent a photo to anyone outside LASD.”
Bryant’s filing Monday noted that law enforcement officials know that the “first step in investigating a complaint is to preserve evidence and that destroying evidence is improper.” “Yet that is exactly what Sheriff Villanueva himself ordered Department personnel to do after the Department received a citizen’s complaint that a Sheriff’s deputy was showing photos of the crash site at a bar in Norwalk,” her attorneys stated. After a sheriff’s captain questioned whether the deletions were lawful, the sheriff demoted him, according the court document. Bryant's attorneys also said that fire captain Tony Imbrenda "displayed his personal collection of crash-site photos at a public awards show" and then deleted them and told others to do the same after the controversy was reported in the news media. "I decided to delete the photos," he stated in a declaration filed in court Monday. "I did not want them to be misused, I advised others to do the same."
The county of Los Angeles is trying to force the widow of Kobe Bryant and other surviving family members of a fatal helicopter crash last year to submit to psychiatric examinations that could help the county prove a critical point in their legal dispute: Did Vanessa Bryant and the others suffer emotional distress because photos of their dead relatives were shared by county fire and sheriff's department employees after the crash? Or did their emotional distress stem only from the tragic crash itself?
The county contends it's the latter and is seeking a court order to compel these medical examinations as part its effort to defend itself from a lawsuit filed by Bryant last year after the NBA legend and their daughter died in that crash with seven others. Vanessa Bryant is suing the county for invasion of privacy and negligence, claiming county employees improperly shared photos of human remains from the crash site. In a court filing Friday, the county noted that Bryant and other surviving family plaintiffs are suing the county for “tens of millions of dollars based solely on their claimed 'severe emotional distress.’ ” The county's position is that their distress was not caused by county employees or any accident site photos it says "were never publicly disseminated."
The county said the photos were not posted on the internet and said the basis for Bryant's claims is that county employees "showed accident site photos to other government personnel and to a bartender" after the crash. It also is fighting an attempt by Bryant to take the depositions of L.A. Sheriff Alex Villanueva and County Fire Department Chief Daryl Osby. “Adding insult to injury, the County is making this demand while simultaneously refusing to make two of its key witnesses … available for a routine deposition,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys stated. “Apparently, in the County’s estimation, top officials should be shielded from providing any testimony, but the victims should not only withstand the emotional toll of a full-day deposition, but also submit to an eight-hour involuntary psychiatric examination simply because they had the audacity to demand accountability for Defendants’ disrespect of the dead and callous intrusion upon their private grief.”
The lawsuit, filed last Thursday in the Superior Court of California and obtained by USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday, cites emotional distress, negligence and invasion of privacy. It alleges at least eight sheriff’s deputies took photos on their personal cell phones of the crash. Additionally, a deputy trainee shared the photo with a member of the public days after the crash, according to a bartender who witnessed the interaction and then filed a written complaint to the department.
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