Vanessa Bryant will not have to undergo a psychiatric examination as part of her lawsuit against Los Angeles County over the helicopter crash scene photos taken by sheriff’s deputies and shown to others, a federal magistrate ruled Monday.
The widow of Kobe Bryant sued L.A. County last year, alleging that she and her family suffered severe emotional distress after learning that L.A. County sheriff’s deputies snapped and later shared gruesome images of the crash scene where her husband, daughter Gianna and seven others died in January 2020.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles F. Eick ruled that the county’s motion to compel Vanessa Bryant to undergo an independent medical evaluation was untimely given that a trial is scheduled for February 2022.
Lawyers for the county had contended that Vanessa Bryant could not be suffering severe distress from crash photos she has never seen and that were never shared publicly, and they wanted a psychiatric exam to prove so.
“The fact remains that no crash site photos taken by first responders have ever been publicly disseminated, as Ms. Bryant confirmed in her deposition,” said Skip Miller, a Century City lawyer whose firm was retained to defend L.A. County.
“We totally sympathize with the enormous loss she has suffered. But as a legal matter, we don’t believe she could be harmed by something that didn’t occur.”
Vanessa Bryant’s lawyer, Luis Li, fired back, saying that an invasive medical exam is not necessary and that his client’s distress is plainly evident from her own testimony.
“The County’s tactics are simply a cruel attempt to extract a price for victims to obtain accountability,” Li wrote in a court filing. “Rather than take accountability for conduct the Sheriff himself has called ‘wildly inappropriate’ and ‘disgusting,’ the County has chosen to pull out all the stops to make the case as painful as possible.”
Li pointed to Bryant’s testimony during an Oct. 12 deposition in which she described how Sheriff Alex Villaneuva informed her of her husband’s and daughter’s death and then said, “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“And I said, ‘If you can’t bring my husband and baby back, please make sure no one takes photographs of them. Please secure the area,’” Bryant recalled.
Villanueva assured her he would secure the area, prompting Bryant to make a more direct and urgent plea.
“I said: ‘No, I need you to get on the phone right now and I need you to make sure that you secure the area,’” she recalled.
Villanueva left, then returned, and, according to Bryant, he told her: “All is good. The area is secure.”
But weeks after the fatal crash, a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed that deputies had shared the grim images of the scene. The dissemination came to light after a deputy trainee showed images on his cellphone to patrons at a bar. Others complained about that instance and one in which a firefighter showed photos to a group of off-duty firefighters and their partners, according to filings in the lawsuits.
The decision is another victory for Vanessa Bryant’s legal team, which last week persuaded a judge to allow them to depose the sheriff and county fire chief.
The judge on Monday also denied the county’s request to require a psychiatric evaluation for Christopher Chester, who has filed a lawsuit that mirrors Vanessa Bryant’s. He lost his wife, Sarah Chester, and 13-year-old daughter, Payton, in the Calabasas crash.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will consider approving a settlement with two other families who lost loved ones in the crash and sued over the photos.
Matthew Mauser would receive $1.25 million and siblings J.J. Altobelli and Alexis Altobelli would share another $1.25 million. Mauser’s wife, Christine, and the Altobellis’ mother, father and younger sister — Keri, John and Alyssa — died in the crash.
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