Judge combines lawsuits from Vanessa Bryant, other victims' families
Both suits allege that the L.A. County sheriff's and fire departments violated the plaintiffs' 14th Amendment rights when employees shared photos of the scene
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES COUNTY, Calif. — A federal judge has ruled to combine similar lawsuits filed against Los Angeles County by Vanessa Bryant and an Orange County man whose wife and daughter were among nine people, including Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna, killed in a January 2020 helicopter crash.
The lawsuits, filed by Vanessa Bryant and Christopher Chester, both allege that the L.A. County sheriff's and fire departments, among other defendants, violated their 14th Amendment rights after county employees shared photos of the crash scene in Calabasas.
A copy of U.S. District Judge John F. Walter's order was not available Tuesday, but Mira Hashmall, the lead attorney for the county in the Bryant case, confirmed the decision to The Times in a statement.
"We are not surprised Judge Walter decided to try the Bryant and Chester cases together, but he confirmed that each plaintiff must meet their separate burden of proof at trial," Hashmall said. "And while plaintiffs want to argue there was a widespread custom and practice of improper sharing accident photos by first responders, the fact is there is no evidence of it and they won't be able to prove it."
Walter didn't find that Sheriff Alex Villanueva erred when he ordered deputies to delete the photos so they wouldn't become public, the attorney said, noting that no county photos have been made public.
Attorneys for Bryant and Chester did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
In a July 15 brief filed in support of combining the cases, Bryant's attorney argued that having one trial would "promote efficiency, reduce costs for all involved, and reduce the risk of inconsistent verdicts."
Deputies and county firefighters took "graphic close-up photos of human remains strewn across the crash site" and shared the photos "indiscriminately" within and outside their departments, according to the brief.
The document referred to an incident two days after the crash in which Joey Cruz, a deputy trainee, showed a bartender in Norwalk graphic photos of the crash site that were forwarded to him by another deputy. The brief did not name Cruz, referring only to "one LASD deputy [who] flaunted photos of remains at a bar."
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After Cruz left, the bartender told a real estate investor sitting in a nearby booth that the deputy had shown him photos of Bryant's remains. Later that night, the man decided to report what he'd heard to the Sheriff's Department.
The email soon reached Villanueva, who quickly offered deputies amnesty from discipline if they came clean and deleted the photos.
About three weeks after the Jan. 26, 2020, crash, Capt. Tony Imbrenda, a spokesman for the L.A. County Fire Department, was at an awards ceremony recognizing radio and TV journalists at the Hilton Hotel in Universal City.
During the cocktail hour, Imbrenda showed off his photos of the crash to some firefighters, in proximity to their spouses. A firefighter's wife complained, according to internal Fire Department records filed in court. Around the time that reports of photo sharing emerged, Imbrenda deleted about 45 photos and instructed eight to 10 others to do the same, he said in a deposition.
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The deletions and the possibility that photos of the crash scene could be made public underpin both lawsuits.
"Deletions continued after litigation began, with at least  witnesses who are known to have possessed photos of remains from the crash site wiping or replacing their phones before they could be forensically examined," the brief stated. "None of the other devices these witnesses might possess (computers, laptops, iPads, other phones, etc.) have ever been examined. Nor has any examination reached all of their iCloud or other online cloud storage systems."
In a July 13 brief, attorneys for the county argued that combining the cases "would create a risk of jury confusion and risk a fair trial."
"Chester cannot point to any evidence of photos depicting his loved ones," the county's brief stated. "Unlike in the Bryant case, where witnesses have testified about pictures of Kobe Bryant, no witness has ever testified about seeing a photo depicting Chester's family members."
Attorneys for L.A. County accused Chester of "riding Bryant's coattails" and trying to benefit from evidence that pertains only to the Bryant case.
Unlike Bryant, Chester does not live in the public eye and "has no reasonable basis for his fear that photos of his family will be publicly disseminated," according to the county's brief.
A brief filed July 15 by Chester's attorney disputed those claims.
"The admissions and conduct of the defendants' own employees demonstrate that photographs of all the decedents were taken on the morning of the accident and later shared," according to that brief.
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Walter scheduled trial for the second week of August, ruling that 10 jurors would be impaneled for the federal civil procedure in which a verdict must be unanimous.
The judge gave the parties nine days to try the case in the downtown federal courthouse.
During a pretrial hearing Tuesday, Walter also ruled to allow the county to call forensic psychiatrist Dr. Marc Cohen as a defense witness to explore Bryant's claims of emotional distress over fears that the crash-site images — which have all allegedly been destroyed — would one day be publicly disclosed.
City News Service contributed to this report.
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