Lawyers for Kobe Bryant’s widow will get to question the Los Angeles County sheriff and the county’s top fire official under oath over photos of the late basketball great and his daughter that circulated after their fatal helicopter crash last year.
Vanessa Bryant’s request to force Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and County Fire Chief Daryl Osby to provide pretrial testimony in a deposition was granted on Tuesday by US Magistrate Judge Charles Eick, USA Today reported.
Villanueva and Osby are two of the most powerful public safety officials in Los Angeles County, the most populous county in the United States.
The widow of the late Lakers legend filed a lawsuit against the county for invasion of privacy and negligence after several LASD and County Fire employees circulated images showing the human remains of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna.
The lawsuit contends first responders, including firefighters and sheriff´s deputies, shared photographs of Kobe Bryant’s body with a bartender and passed around ‘gratuitous photos of the dead children, parents and coaches.’
Vanessa Bryant (seen above in Connecticut on May 15) won a legal battle on Tuesday when a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled that her lawyers can question Los Angeles County’s top law enforcement official as well as the most senior fire official over graphic photos of her late husband and daughter that were disseminated last year
Vanessa Bryant’s request to force Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva (right) and County Fire Chief Daryl Osby (left) to provide pretrial testimony in a deposition was granted on Tuesday by US Magistrate Judge Charles Eick
The widow of the late Lakers legend filed a lawsuit against the county for invasion of privacy and negligence after several LASD and County Fire employees circulated images showing the human remains of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna
Kobe Bryant, 41, and Gianna Bryant, 13, were among nine people who were killed when their private helicopter, a Sikorsky S-76, crashed in the hills of Calabasas, just outside of Los Angeles, after taking off from Orange County on January 26, 2020. Bryant and the others were on their way to a girls basketball tournament. The helicopter crashed in the hills west of Los Angeles amid foggy weather. Federal safety officials blamed pilot error for the wreck
The suit claims that deputies circulated the photos among themselves gratuitously, and that one displayed a photo on his phone to a bartender at Baja California Bar and Grill, who then loudly proclaimed to patrons and staff that he’d just seen an image of Kobe Bryant’s body.
Los Angeles County contends that, while the conduct was inappropriate, showing a photo to one member of the public does not constitute invasion of privacy.
The county says that the photos were not shared with the media or posted on the internet, and thus were ‘not publicly disseminated.’
The trial is scheduled to begin in February.
Kobe Bryant, 41, and Gianna Bryant, 13, were among nine people who were killed when their private helicopter, a Sikorsky S-76, crashed in the hills of Calabasas, just outside of Los Angeles, after taking off from Orange County on January 26, 2020.
Bryant and the others were on their way to a girls basketball tournament. The helicopter crashed in the hills west of Los Angeles amid foggy weather. Federal safety officials blamed pilot error for the wreck.
Los Angeles County contends that, while the conduct was inappropriate, showing a photo to one member of the public does not constitute invasion of privacy. Bryant is pictured above during an NBA game in Philadelphia in December 2015
In his ruling, Eick determined that Villanueva and Osby have ‘unique, firsthand, non-repetitive knowledge relevant to the issues in this case’ that is ‘not entirely obtainable’ through other sources.
Eick will allow Vanessa Bryant’s lawyers to question the sheriff and the fire chief for up to four hours in order to allow them to return to their official duties with minimum disruption.
Lawyers for the county had hoped to prevent Vanessa Bryant’s lawyers from questioning Villanueva and Osby. They argued that heads of government agencies ‘are not normally subject to deposition, absent extraordinary circumstances.’
The county said that top officials are usually not required to testify since this protects them ‘from discovery that will burden the performance of their duties, particularly given the frequency with which such officials are likely to be named in lawsuits.’
Skip Miller, a lawyer representing the county, told USA Today: ‘While we disagree with the court’s decision, we will make both the Sheriff and Fire Chief available for deposition.
‘Their testimony will not change the fact that there is no evidence any photos taken by County first responders have ever been publicly disseminated.’
Vanessa Bryant said she pleaded with Villanueva to make sure no one takes photographs from the site of the 2020 helicopter crash that killed the basketball star, and he reassured that the area had been secured, court documents say.
After Villanueva confirmed her husband, their teenage daughter, along with seven others, were killed, he asked Vanessa Bryant if he could do anything for her, according to a transcript of a deposition obtained by USA TODAY Sports on Saturday on her lawsuit against Los Angeles County.
‘And I said: “If you can’t bring my husband and baby back, please make sure that no one takes photographs of them. Please secure the area”,’ Vanessa Bryant said during the deposition.
‘And he said: “I will.”
‘And I said: “No, I need you to get on the phone right now and I need you to make sure you secure the area”.’
Villanueva, she said, excused himself momentarily and reassured her the area had been secured when he came back.
Kobe Bryant’s widow also revealed in a sworn statement how she learned of the helicopter crash that killed the retired basketball star and their daughter Gianna, as well as other details from the tragic day that have never before been made public.
Under questioning from a county attorney, Vanessa said she first learned of the crash, which occurred around 9.45am, when her assistant knocked on the door about 11.30am and told her there had been a crash.
NBA star Kobe Bryant’s widow Vanessa Bryant has revealed in a sworn statement how she learned of the helicopter crash that killed him and their daughter Gianna last year
‘She told me that there was an accident and that there were five survivors,’ Vanessa testified from Newport Beach over Zoom on October 12, according to a transcript obtained by USA Today.
‘And I asked her if Gianna and Kobe were okay. And she said she wasn’t sure. She didn’t know.’
Hearing that there were survivors — which turned out not to be true, as all nine people aboard were killed instantly on impact — Vanessa said that she initially assumed Kobe and Gianna had survived.
But as she tried in vain to call her husband, notifications began to pop up on her phone, sharing condolences for Kobe’s death.
‘I was trying to call my husband back, and all these notifications started popping up on my phone, saying RIP Kobe. RIP Kobe. RIP Kobe,’ she said.
She said that she rushed to an airport to try to take a helicopter to the crash scene, but was told that weather conditions would not permit flight.
Vanessa also revealed that she recovered the clothes Kobe and Gianna wore during the crash, out of concern that someone would take pictures of them.
‘They suffered a lot,’ Bryant said during the deposition, according to the New York Times.
‘And if their clothes represent the condition of their bodies, I cannot imagine how someone could be so callous and have no regard for them or their friends and just share the images as if they were animals on the street.’
‘The impact of the helicopter crash was so damaging, I just don’t understand how someone can have no regard for life and compassion, and, instead, choose to take that opportunity to photograph lifeless and helpless individuals for their own sick amusement,’ she said.
A charter helicopter was carrying Kobe, Gianna, and other youth basketball players and coaches from Orange County to Thousand Oaks when the pilot became disoriented in fog and crashed in Calabasas.
‘My life will never be the same without my husband and daughter,’ she said.
Bryant, whose federal lawsuit against the county alleges invasion of privacy, has claimed in court papers that she has experienced ‘severe emotional distress’ that has compounded the trauma of losing her husband and 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.
The lawsuit contends first responders, including firefighters and sheriff’s deputies, shared photographs of Kobe Bryant’s body with a bartender and passed around ‘gratuitous photos of the dead children, parents and coaches.’
Los Angeles County is seeking to compel psychiatric evaluations for Vanessa Bryant and others to determine if they truly suffered emotional distress.
Vanessa Bryant’s lawyers argue in court filings that the examinations are ‘cruel’ while the county contends the examinations are ‘a routine part of the discovery process.’
Eick on Monday also agreed to Vanessa Bryant’s request to obtain phone records belonging to Brian Jordan, a now-retired fire captain who was reprimanded last year by the department over photos that were in his possession.
Jordan is reported to have taken pictures of the crash site. Vanessa Bryant has accused Jordan of taking several photographs ‘directly focused on human remains.’
Jordan is then alleged to have ‘sent the photos to at least one other Department employee, who proceeded to share them over cocktails at a public awards show function.’
Vanessa Bryant’s attorney, Luis Li, wants Jordan’s phone records from mobile carriers AT&T and T-Mobile. Li wrote in court documents that the records will show whether Jordan was texting photos or videos while he was ‘snapping graphic photos of body parts’ at the crash site.
Jordan deleted the photos. Li has stated in court records that he wants a court order requiring Jordan to produce cell phone records from the day of the crash – January 26, 2020 – through March 3, 2020.
The department last year rebuked him, saying that the photographs had ‘no legitimate business purpose’ and ‘only served to appeal to baser instincts and desires for what amounted to visual gossip.’
The fire department had planned to fire Jordan over the images, according to USA Today, which cited court records.
But Jordan opted for early retirement due to mental health concerns.
Jordan’s attorneys accused Vanessa Bryant of ‘impertinence’ and seeking ‘vengeance’ against him as part of a campaign to punish those who shared photos of her dead husband and daughter.
Kobe Bryant is seen with Gianna (top left) as well as his wife and other children
‘It is with great impertinence that Plaintiff suggests that Mr. Jordan grievously intruded on Mrs. Bryant’s privacy by taking graphic photos of her deceased loved ones, when Mr. Jordan was simply obeying orders,’ Jordan’s attorney, Steven Haney, wrote in a court document filed last week.
‘Captain Jordan, nor any man, could not have wished to see the carnage that he saw on January 26, 2020.
‘A sight which he will remember and carry with him for the rest of his life.
‘Time and time again Captain Jordan has sought to put these events past him, but instead Plaintiff has pursued vengeance against this third party witness.’
‘Captain Jordan feels empathy for the pain Mrs. Bryant and her family were subjected to, and the notion that one day photographs will come to light that might affect her family, but Captain Jordan should not have to suffer an invasion of privacy to rectify a potentially theoretical wrong that he was not the cause of,’ the filing stated.
The county fire department sent a letter to Jordan last December which stated that ‘your capture and subsequent dissemination of photographs of the fuselage and human remains’ was unacceptable conduct.
Jordan acknowledged that ‘graphic images, as well as Kobe Bryant’s remains, were probably in the photographs that he took’ that day, according to the fire department.
Jordan has disputed the department’s findings, saying that he was made out to be a scapegoat.
He claims he was obeying orders by taking photos from the crash site.
At least one other fire department employee was told they would be fired. Another employee was suspended over the incident.