June 23, 2021

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County of Los Angeles responds to Vanessa Bryant’s lawsuit over photos from helicopter crash

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The county of Los Angeles said it took “corrective personnel actions” against any employees who improperly shared photos from the scene of Kobe Bryant’s death last year, but said the photos were not publicly disseminated and that Bryant’s widow is wrong to file a lawsuit over it.

The county gave this account in a court filing recently submitted in response to the lawsuit filed last year by Vanessa Bryant, widow of the basketball legend. She is suing the county for invasion of privacy and has accused four Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies of improperly sharing photos of the dead at the site of Bryant’s fatal helicopter crash in January 2020, including one who allegedly showed the photos at a bar two days after the accident.

“The County does not condone this showing of accident site photographs and has taken corrective personnel actions accordingly,” said the filing by the county, which employs the deputies. “That does not mean, however, that Plaintiff has viable legal claims.”

Kobe Bryant and Vanessa Laine Bryant arrive for the 90th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood on March 4, 2018.

Vanessa Bryant’s husband and daughter were among nine who died in the crash. Vanessa Bryant and two other families of the deceased have filed similar lawsuits over the photos.

The county said the photos were not given to the media and were not posted on the internet. Under California law, the county said “showing an accident site photograph to one member of the public cannot constitute an invasion of Plaintiff’s privacy.”

“They were not publicly disseminated,” the county said. “Plaintiff brought this lawsuit because she is concerned that photographs may be publicly disseminated. There is no legal basis for suing Defendants for hypothetical harm.”

Vanessa Bryant still has shown no signs of letting up in this fight and indicated in court documents she might sue others who were involved in sharing photos of the deceased after reviewing internal reports of conduct by personnel at the scene from the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

Her lawsuit states she seeks to punish the deputy defendants and “make an example of them to the community.”

In a court filing last week, her attorney noted plans to conduct “more than forty depositions, forensic examinations of electronic devices and cloud-based storage accounts in the possession of Defendants and third parties, and expert reports and depositions.”

She also has served demands to inspect the electronic devices and cloud-based storage accounts of the four sheriff’s deputies named in her suit: Joey Cruz, Raul Versales, Rafael Mejia, and Michael Russell.

Cruz is described as a “trainee deputy” in the suit and is accused of sharing the photos at the bar in Norwalk.

“Cruz then showed photos of the Bryants’ remains to a fellow bar patron and the restaurant’s bartender, and he is seen on the bar’s security camera zooming in and out of the images while displaying them to the bartender,” her lawsuit states. “One of the photos showed the body of a girl, and Cruz remarked that another showed the remains of Kobe Bryant. Shortly after seeing the photos, the bartender loudly boasted to restaurant employees and patrons that he had just seen a photo of Kobe Bryant’s body and described the image in graphic detail.”

The county said the basis for Vanessa Bryant’s suit is that the defendants showed accident site photographs “to other government personnel and to a friend who is a bartender in Norwalk.”

Bryant’s lawsuit said Cruz “shared them with multiple individuals without any legitimate governmental purpose, including several members of the public.”

The county acknowledged that an internal report contains some of the information detailed about the bar incident, “namely that the bartender discussed generally seeing a photo with bar patrons.”

“Defendants deny that he went into the level of detail implied in the allegations,” the county stated.

The county “expresses its deepest sympathies and condolences to the Bryant family for their loss,” the county’s court filing states. “This case is not about that tragedy. It is about accident site photographs.”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com.

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