LOS ANGELES (CN) — Vanessa Bryant will be allowed to argue that LA County sheriff's deputies destroyed evidence of photos they took and shared of her late husband and daughter's remains at a helicopter crash site when her lawsuit goes to trial next month.
U.S. District Judge John Walter at a hearing Tuesday agreed with Bryant that the sheriff's department had a duty to preserve the evidence once officials could reasonably foresee she was going to sue in early March 2020, but that they failed to stop deputies and other personnel from wiping their phones or replacing them.
"The plaintiffs have been deprived of direct evidence that goes to the heart of their case," Walter said.
The widow of LA Laker great Kobe Bryant sued after media reports emerged that officers and LA County firefighters were sharing graphic, close-up photos of the remains her husband and their 13-year-old daughter taken at the site of the Jan. 26, 2020, helicopter crash on a hillside north of Los Angeles.
Bryant claims at least 11 sheriff's personnel and a dozen firefighters shared the photos within 24 hours of the crash and that in the following weeks, one deputy showed the photos at a bar, another texted them to a group of video game buddies, and a Fire Department captain displayed them at an awards gala.
After a citizen filed a complaint with the sheriff's department that a deputy had been flaunting photos of Kobe Bryant's remains at a bar days after the crash, LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva instructed officers and other personnel to delete any photos they had from their phones, overriding concerns by one of his captains that doing so might amount to destruction of evidence.
"By destroying the forensic trail, defendants have prevented plaintiff from ever finding out how far the photos spread, how many other people have seen photos of her loved ones’ remains, and how many photos remain unsecured and susceptible to going viral online," Bryant's attorneys said in their request for sanctions. "Now, defendants seek to exploit the evidentiary void they have created by using it to downplay their misconduct at trial."
According to Bryant, 9 out of the 11 sheriff's department personnel lost the photos or replaced their phones, and a tenth wiped his phone of all data. The Fire Department captain who had been sharing the photos at an awards gala instructed 8 to 10 of his subordinates, friends, and acquaintances to delete all graphic photos from the crash, according to Bryant, and deleted about 45 photos from his own private and work phones.
Mira Hashmall, a lawyer for LA County, unsuccessfully tried to persuade the judge that sanctions weren't warranted because any spoliation occurred months before litigation commenced.
"It's been 2 1/2 years and the pictures are still not in the public domain," Hashmall told the judge.
Walter wasn't moved and said that allowing Bryant to introduce evidence that the defendants had destroyed evidence was the least severe sanction he could impose. The judge, however, found that the sheriff's department didn't have to a duty to preserve evidence when Villanueva instructed his personnel to delete illicit photos from their phones because that was before Bryant's attorney first sent the department a letter threatening legal action.
It was "significant that Judge Walter did not find the sheriff did anything wrong when he gave the order to delete the photos so that none of them would become public," Hashmall said after the hearing.
The county also failed to persuade the judge to hold separate trials for Bryant and Christopher Chester, whose wife and daughter died in the crash, and who filed similar allegations that the county violated his right to privacy under the 14th Amendment to control the death images of his loved ones. The trial for both plaintiffs is tentatively scheduled to start Aug. 11 or 12.
The judge denied Bryant's bid to exclude the testimony of the county's psychiatric expert witness who is to tell the jury that Bryant and Chester suffered no mental harm or emotional damage from the photos taken at the crash site, even though he never examined either in person.
Walter said the testimony will give Bryant's and Chester's lawyers plenty of ammunition for cross-examination and hinted to the county's lawyers that this testimony could backfire.
"But I'll leave it up to you," the judge said.
Walter previously had urged the parties to settle, saying there wasn't much Bryant could expect in terms of damages or other remedies should she prevail at trial.
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