An institutional “culture of insensitivity” led Los Angeles County deputies and firefighters to take and share photos of the remains of Kobe Bryant and other victims of the 2020 helicopter crash that killed the Lakers star, his daughter. 13 years old and seven other people. an attorney for Bryant’s widow told a jury Wednesday.
Vanessa Bryant’s attorney, Luis Li, told the jury in his opening statement in US District Court in her invasion of privacy trial against the county that cell phone photos taken at the scene of the accident by an officer and a fire captain were “visual gossip” viewed “for laughs”. ”, and had no official purpose.
“They were shared by agents who played video games,” Li said. “They were repeatedly shared with people who had absolutely no reason to receive them.”
A county attorney defended taking photos as an essential tool for first responders looking to share information when they thought they could 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,” said County Attorney J. Mira Hashmall.
Vanessa Bryant cried frequently during her attorney’s presentation. She was still wiping tears from her eyes minutes later during a break.
Li told the jury that learning a month after the accident about the circulation of the photos not from the county but from the Los Angeles Times compounded his still raw suffering.
“January 26, 2020 was the worst day of Vanessa Bryant’s life. The county made it much worse,” Li said. “They poured salt from it into an open wound and rubbed it.”
Li showed the jury security video of an off-duty sheriff’s deputy drinking at a bar showing the photos to the bartender, who shook his head in dismay. The attorney then showed a picture of the men laughing together later. Li described firefighters looking at phone photos two weeks later at an awards banquet, showing jurors an animated chart documenting its spread to nearly 30 people.
Li said the county did not conduct a thorough investigation to make sure all copies of the photo were accounted for, and out of fear they might one day come to light and be seen online by her surviving children, Vanessa Bryant “will be persecuted for what they did forever.”
During the defense’s opening statement, Hashmall told the jury that the fact that the footage hasn’t surfaced in more than two years shows that the leaders of the police and fire departments did their job.
“They are not online. They are not in the media. They have not even been seen by the plaintiffs themselves,” Hashmall said. She added: “That is not an accident. That’s a function of how diligent they were.”
Sheriff Alex Villanueva and department officials immediately called everyone involved and ordered them to delete the photos, rather than conduct a lengthy official investigation that could further harm the families, he said.
“He chose what he saw as the only option: decisive action,” Hashmall said. “I felt like every second mattered.”
Hashmall told the jury that the reason Li even had the bartender’s video to show, which he suggested was misleadingly edited to show the men laughing together, was because the Sheriff’s Department had received it the same day they received it. a complaint from another bar patron. who witnessed the exchange of photos.
She said that the officer was struggling emotionally from the difficulty of dealing with the scene of the accident and that the bartender was a long-time friend whom she trusted.
“He pulled out his phone, and that shouldn’t 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 pain of those who filed the lawsuit and focus on the matter before them.
“There is no question that these families have suffered,” he said. “It is indescribable. But this case is not about the loss of the accident. It’s about the images.”
Chris Chester, whose wife, Sara, and daughter Payton also died in the crash, is also a plaintiff in the suit, which is seeking unspecified millions.
The county has 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 refused to settle.
Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and other parents and players were flying to a women’s basketball tournament when their rented helicopter crashed in fog. Federal safety officials blamed pilot error for the crash.
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