An institutional “culture of callousness” led Los Angeles County deputies and firefighters to shoot and share photos of the remains of Kobe Bryant and other victims of the 2020 helicopter crash that killed the Lakers star, his 13-year-old daughter, and seven others, a lawyer for Bryant's widow told a jury Wednesday.
Vanessa Bryant's attorney Luis Li told jurors in his opening statement in U.S. District Court in her invasion of privacy trial against the county that the cell-phone photos shot at the crash scene by a deputy and a fire captain were “visual gossip" viewed “for a laugh," and had no official purpose.
“They were shared by deputies playing video games,” Li said. “They were shared repeatedly with people who had absolutely no reason to receive them."
An attorney for the county defended the taking of the photos as an essential tool for first-responders seeking to share information when they thought they might still save lives at the chaotic, dangerous and hard-to-reach crash scene in the Calabasas hills west of Los Angeles
“Site photography is essential,” county lawyer J. Mira Hashmall said.
Vanessa Bryant cried frequently during her lawyer's presentation. She was still wiping tears from her eyes minutes afterward during a break.
Li told jurors that learning a month after the crash about the photos' circulation not from the county but the Los Angeles Times compounded her still-raw suffering.
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“January 26th, 2020, was the worst day of Vanessa Bryant’s life. The county made it much worse," Li said. “They poured salt in an open wound and rubbed it in.”
Li played jurors security video of an off-duty sheriff's deputy drinking at a bar showing the photos to the bartender, who shakes his head in dismay. The lawyer then showed an image of the men laughing together later. Li described firefighters looking at the phone photos two weeks later at an awards banquet, and showed the jury an animated chart documenting their spread to nearly 30 people.
Li said the county failed to conduct a thorough investigation to make sure every copy of the photo was accounted for, and because of the fear that they will someday surface, and her surviving children may see them online, Vanessa Bryant "will be haunted by what they did forever.”
During the defense's opening statement, Hashmall told jurors that the fact that the pictures have not appeared in more than two years showed that leaders in the sheriff's and fire department did their jobs.
“They're not online. They're not in the media. They've never even been seen by the plaintiffs themselves," Hashmall said. She added, “That is not an accident. That is a function of how diligent they were.”
Sheriff Alex Villanueva and department officials immediately brought in all those involved and ordered them to delete the photos, rather than conduct a long official investigation that might harm the families further, she said.
“He picked what he viewed as the only option — decisive action,” Hashmall said. “He felt like every second mattered.”
Hashmall told the jury that the reason Li even had the video of the bartender to show, which she suggested was deceptively edited to show the men laughing together, was because the Sheriff's Department had gotten it the same day they received a complaint from another bar patron who witnessed the photo sharing.
She said the deputy was struggling emotionally from the difficulty of dealing with the crash scene, and that the bartender was a longtime friend in whom he was confiding.
“He pulled out his phone, and that should not have happened,” she said. “In a lapse, in a moment of weakness, he showed those photos, and he has regretted it every day of his life.”
The defense attorney urged jurors to look past the grief of those who brought the lawsuit and focus on the matter before them.
“There is no doubt these families have suffered,” she said. “It's unspeakable. But this case is not about the loss from the crash. It's about the pictures.”
Chris Chester, whose wife, Sara, and daughter Payton were also killed in the crash, is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified millions.
The county already agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle a similar case brought by two families whose relatives died in the Jan. 26, 2020, crash. Bryant and Chester declined to settle.
Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-od daughter Gianna, and other parents and players were flying to a girls basketball tournament when their chartered helicopter crashed in the fog. Federal safety officials blamed pilot error for the wreck.