NBA Rumor: Vanessa Bryant Lawsuit

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A lawyer for Vanessa Bryant on Tuesday delivered a powerful closing argument in her civil case against Los Angeles County over pictures taken and shared from the 2020 helicopter crash site where her husband, Kobe, and daughter, Gianna, were killed. On behalf of Vanessa, attorney Craig Lavoie opened his statement with a reminder that Kobe would have turned 44 years old Tuesday if he was still alive. “Forty-four years ago today in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Kobe Bryant was born. Today is his birthday,” Lavoie began, adding what an honor it is to represent Vanessa. He asked for “justice and accountability” for Kobe and Gianna, who would have turned 16 in May.

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Lavoie described the January 2020 helicopter accident as “devastating and life-shattering” before he condemned the conduct of the sheriff and fire department defendants, “who were supposed to protect the dignity of those who perished on that hillside.” More than once during his closing statements, Lavoie said the behavior “shocks the conscience.” Vanessa is “haunted by the idea that the images could come out” and is unable to “calm down” from the anxiety, said Lavoie. “She feels asphyxiated,” he stated, before asking the jury, “How much can a person bear?” There is a “chance the photos could someday surface,” according to Lavoie, who asked what the percentage of that occurring is, before he concluded, “Whatever each of us thinks that number is, it’s definitely not zero.”

This was Day 4 of her civil trial against Los Angeles County. But it was the first day that multiple county sheriff’s and fire department employees would be required to get up on the witness stand and answer questions in front of her about what they did. It wasn’t pretty. One witness, a retired fire captain named Brian Jordan, stepped down off the witness stand three times in distress Monday after being asked about taking photos at the scene of the helicopter crash that killed Bryant’s daughter and husband Kobe, the NBA legend. Jordan claimed not to remember anything about the crash scene even though he was there and took photos of what he saw. “Kobe Bryant’s remains were in the pictures you took?” asked Luis Li, Bryant’s attorney. “I need a break,” Jordan replied, before stepping down and leaving the court room for the first of those three interruptions.

The lawsuit says that by sharing the photos, those involved — including the deputy at the bar and firefighters weeks later at an awards banquet — violated the victims’ families’ constitutional rights to control images of their loved ones’ remains. “Mrs. Bryant feels ill at the thought of strangers gawking at images of her deceased husband and child, and she lives in fear that she or her children will one day confront horrific images of their loved ones online,” Bryant’s lawyers wrote in a complaint. “Many social media users have claimed to have seen photos of the victims’ remains, and their accounts are plausible given the number of deputies who took photos, the ease with which cellphone pictures are transmitted and saved in cloud storage, and the Sheriff’s Department’s egregious failure to take reasonable steps to prevent dissemination of the photos.”

Surveillance video inside the bar showing Cruz and Gutierrez interacting and appearing to look at Cruz’s cellphone together played throughout his testimony. At times, it appeared that Cruz and Gutierrez were smiling and laughing after viewing the photos — but Gutierrez disputed that interpretation. “What type of human being would laugh at photos of other human beings like that?” he said. Bryant, sitting in the courtroom, repeatedly wiped away tears and, at times, held her head in her hands. At one point, while Gutierrez testified about the photos, she asked the judge for permission to leave the courtroom. She stood up and walked out, wiping tears from her eyes. The trial is expected to last at least another week, with 52 total witnesses slated to appear. Villanueva and Bryant are among those scheduled to testify.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy who took close-up photos of dead bodies from the helicopter crash that killed NBA legend Kobe Bryant testified in federal court here Friday that he “didn’t do anything wrong” and was simply obeying an order to take photographs of the scene of the accident that day. The deputy, Douglas Johnson, said another sheriff’s deputy at his command post, Raul Versales, told him to do so. He said he took about 25 photos, including those of a contorted torso and a “close-up of a shin and a foot that had Black skin tone.”

This was Day 3 of Vanessa Bryant’s civil trial against Los Angeles County – and another difficult day for Bryant, who left the courtroom early again for the second straight day. Bryant and Chester sued the county in 2020, accusing county sheriff’s and fire department employees of taking and sharing photos of their deceased loved ones from the crash scene despite having no legitimate business reason for it. The case is being heard by a jury of five men and four women after one male juror dropped out after Day 2 for family-related reasons. On Friday, they heard testimony from three witnesses, including Johnson, the deputy Bryant’s team believes started the spread of the gruesome photos among sheriff’s personnel after taking them for dubious reasons.

Kobe Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, wept quietly and dabbed her eyes with tissue here Wednesday as she listened to her attorney describe a series of events that made the worst day of her life “unbearably worse” – to the point that she continues to live in fear and terror over it more than two years later. This was Day 1 of her civil trial against Los Angeles County, a legal battle more than two years in the making after nine died in a helicopter crash in January 2020, including Kobe Bryant, the beloved Los Angeles Lakers legend, and Gianna Bryant, their daughter. Vanessa Bryant sat in the federal courtroom wearing a black mask and black suit, next to her attorney, Luis Li, who got right to the point in front of the jury of 10.

An invasion of privacy trial against the Los Angeles County sheriff’s and fire departments begins Wednesday in a U.S. District Court just over a mile from where Kobe Bryant played for the Lakers. Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, claims deputies did not take the photos for investigative purposes and shared them with firefighters who responded to the Jan. 26, 2020, crash scene. The lawsuit said a deputy showed the photos to bar patrons and that a firefighter showed them to off-duty colleagues.

Bryant is a celebrity and a highly sympathetic public figure as a widow. The county is a large government bureaucracy accused of awful behavior. Therefore, it’s not hard to predict whom jurors will favor. After hearing evidence of deleting photos, jurors also might ask themselves why county workers were doing that if the photos were taken and shared for legitimate work reasons. The county still has a duty to protect taxpayer money and defend itself against a case it believes has no merit. It will argue that it did right by Bryant by preventing the further spread of photos.

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.

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.

Vanessa Bryant asks for sanctions against Los Angeles County

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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