LOS ANGELES (CN) — A federal judge urged Vanessa Bryant to settle her lawsuit with Los Angeles County over photographs of the remains of her husband and daughter that were taken and shared by sheriff's officers and firefighters.
U.S. District Judge John Walter said at a pretrial hearing Friday that if basketball great Kobe Bryant's widow wants to hold the LA County Sheriff and Fire Department accountable for the actions of their employees, there's not much that either he or a jury could do. The jury can only award damages and any punitive damages would be limited to individual, salaried county employees and wouldn't be substantial, he said.
"What more is the jury going to be able to give her?" Walter asked Bryant's lawyer Luis Li. "I can't fire a deputy."
Li avoided answering the judge's repeated questions on how much in damages Vanessa Bryant seeks. The attorney said her damages would be based on the fact that every day of her life she lives in fear the photos will be sent to her or show up on the internet.
The trial in Los Angeles federal court had been scheduled to start this month, but Walter postponed it to late July because of the latest disruptions of jury trials from the pandemic. The judge said he would order a further settlement conference before then.
"It's a case that seems to me should be settled," he said. Last month, he greenlighted the case for trial despite the arguments of the county.
Vanessa Bryant sued LA County after reports that first responders at the Jan. 26, 2020, helicopter crash site had taken pictures of the bodies of Kobe Bryant and their 13-year-old daughter Gianna, who were killed in the crash, on their personal cellphones and then forwarded the photos to their colleagues and showed them to others. The county argued the photos have been deleted and were never made public and that any harm to Vanessa Bryant was only "hypothetical."
If the case doesn't get settled and ends up before a jury, the outcome will hinge on whether Bryant's constitutional right to control the remains and images of her deceased family was violated by the actions of the officers and firefighters who took and shared the pictures at the crash site.
Skip Miller, the lawyer representing LA County, argued at Friday's hearing that the proper question the jury would have to answer is whether the photographs were widely disseminated to the media.
Walter didn't rule on how he would instruct the jury but expressed skepticism of the county's interpretation of the law. It could be enough, he reasoned, to show the officers and firefighters had no legitimate reason to take the pictures of the crash victims' remains or receive them from their colleagues and share them with others.
In particular, Walter said, the evidence that a sheriff deputy showed pictures of the remains in a bar and a fire department employee showed them to people at a gala event could amount to public dissemination.
Walter also expressed skepticism of the county's argument that the first responders took the pictures as part of their jobs, to write reports or to determine what equipment was needed at the crash site, or that it was standard procedure for officers to take pictures at the scene of an accident.
"Why do you need pictures of remains to decide what equipment needs to go up the hillside?" Walter asked. "I don't see any justification of taking pictures of remains even if you have to write a report."