LA County says Vanessa Bryant lacks basis to sue deputies over deadly helicopter crash photos
LOS ANGELES - Los Angeles County attorneys contend Vanessa Bryant has no legal basis to sue four sheriff's deputies alleged to have shared unauthorized photos taken at the site of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others, according to court papers obtained Monday.
Bryant alleges in her lawsuit that deputies who responded to the Jan. 26, 2020, crash scene used personal cell phones "to take and share gratuitous photos of the dead children, parents and coaches." According to the suit, Sheriff Alex Villanueva initially assured Bryant of privacy when she expressed concerns just after the crash occurred.
The suit, seeking damages for negligence and invasion of privacy, claims that a deputy at the scene took between 25 and 100 photos which had "no conceivable investigatory purpose and were focused directly on the victims' remains," and showed the accident site images to other government personnel and to a friend who is a bartender in Norwalk.
In papers filed Friday in L.A. federal court, the county responded to Bryant's suit, arguing that her claims will not stand.
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"The county does not condone this showing of accident site photographs and has taken corrective personnel actions accordingly," county lawyers wrote. "That does not mean, however, that plaintiff has viable legal claims. The two seminal cases involve public dissemination of pictures of human remains, and that did not occur here."
The county maintains the photographs "were not given to the media and were not posted on the internet. They were not publicly disseminated."
Bryant filed the suit last year "because she is concerned that photographs may be publicly disseminated. There is no legal basis for suing defendants for hypothetical harm," according to the county, which argues that "showing an accident site photograph to one member of the public cannot constitute an invasion of plaintiff's privacy."
Along with the county and its sheriff's and fire departments, the lawsuit names deputies Joey Cruz, Rafael Mejia, Michael Russell and Raul Versales as defendants.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva responded on Twitter in March that the department "will refrain from trying this case in the media and will wait for the appropriate venue. Our hearts go out to all the families affected by this tragedy."
According to the complaint, Mejia obtained "multiple photographs of the Bryants' remains" from fire department personnel taken at the scene of the crash, "and stored them on his personal cellphone."
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He then "walked 100 feet from his position at the makeshift command post to chat with a female deputy who was controlling traffic in and out of the Las Virgenes Water District," the suit, filed in Los Angeles federal court, alleges.
"Mejia told the deputy that he had photos of the accident scene and, for no reason other than morbid gossip, proceeded to send the photos of the Bryants' remains to her personal cellphone," according to the lawsuit.
Mejia then allegedly transmitted the photos to Cruz, a trainee deputy at the time. After obtaining the photos, Cruz shared them with "multiple individuals without any legitimate governmental purpose, including several members of the public," the lawsuit alleges.
According to the suit, while at the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff's Station on the evening of the crash, Cruz told Russell he had photos of the Calabasas accident scene.
"Russell asked to see the photos, and Cruz texted photos of the Bryants' remains to Russell's personal cellphone," according to the suit.
The suit also alleges that two days later, while at his mother's house in West Covina, Cruz showed photos of the remains to his niece. Before doing so, Cruz allegedly made a crude remark about the state of the bodies.
The same day, while at the Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk, Cruz allegedly "boasted that he had worked at the scene of the accident where Kobe Bryant had died. 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," according to the suit.
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"One of the photos showed the body of a girl, and Cruz remarked that another showed the remains of Kobe Bryant," the suit states. "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."
Versales, who had also allegedly obtained the photos, sent the images to a detective at LASD, the suit states. As an indication of how casually the photos were shared within the department, "the detective could not even identify the name of the deputy who sent him the photos," the suit contends.
After learning that a complaint had been filed with the LASD regarding improper sharing of photos of the victims' remains, Mejia, Cruz, Versales and Russell "negligently and/or willfully destroyed evidence" by deleting the photos from their cellphones, according to the complaint.
By doing so, Mejia "severely undermined the ability to verify any of his claims regarding his handling and dissemination of the photos," according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that Villanueva personally assured the NBA star's widow that deputies were securing the crash site to ensure her privacy.
"In reality, however, no fewer than eight sheriff's deputies were at the scene snapping cellphone photos of the dead children, parents and coaches," the lawsuit states.
"As the department would later admit, there was no investigative purpose for deputies to take pictures at the crash site. Rather, the deputies took photos for their own personal purposes."
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