Vanessa Bryant, the widow of basketball star Kobe Bryant, has filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles county sheriff claiming deputies shared unauthorized photos of the crash that killed her husband, their 13-year-old daughter and seven others.
After the crash in January, reports surfaced that graphic photos of the victims were being shared. Vanessa Bryant was devastated by the reports, her lawyer said.
The victims also included Payton and Sarah Chester; Christina Mauser; John, Keri, and Alyssa Altobelli; and the pilot, Ara Zobayan, as they were en route to a basketball game on Jan. 26. They all died of blunt force trauma when the helicopter slammed into a hillside in Calabasas in poor visibility.
The lawsuit accuses at least eight deputies of taking photos of the victims at the crash site with their personal cellphones and showing them to their colleagues, and in one instance, a member of the public.
The suit seeks damages for negligence, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva previously told reporters that eight deputies took or shared graphic photos of the scene and he ordered the images to be deleted. The sheriff said the department has a policy against taking and sharing crime scene photos, but it does not apply to accident scenes.
A month after Kobe Bryant’s death, the Los Angeles Times first reported that sheriff’s deputies had shared private cellphone photos of the victims, and that Villanueva told the deputies that if they quietly deleted the photos, they would not face any discipline.
Following the reports, Villanueva admitted that he had ordered eight deputies to delete the images and he was “content that those involved did that.”
He also called their behavior “inexcusable” and said the department had opened an investigation in response to the Times’ reporting.
“As a result of the swift actions we took under extraordinary circumstances, no pictures made it into the public arena,” the spokesperson added. “We continue to offer our heartfelt sympathies for the victims and their families.”
Vanessa Bryant also accuses Villanueva of engaging in a “cover-up” by failing to secure the photos and stop them from being shared.
“The gratuitous images soon became talked about within the Department, as deputies displayed them to colleagues in settings that had nothing to do with investigating the accident,” the lawsuit states.
One deputy allegedly used his photos to try to impress a woman at a bar as he bragged about how he had been at the crash site, the lawsuit adds, citing a bartender who overheard the interaction and filed a complaint with the sheriff’s department.
At the time, Vanessa Bryant’s attorney Gary C. Robb called for the “harshest possible discipline” against the deputies, saying their alleged actions were “deplorable.”
“This is an unspeakable violation of human decency, respect, and of the privacy rights of the victims and their families,” he said at the time.
The lawsuit states that the sheriff department’s actions caused Vanessa Bryant “severe emotional distress and compounded the trauma of losing Kobe and Gianna.”
“Mrs. Bryant feels ill at the thought of strangers gawking at images of her deceased husband and child, and she lives in fear that she or her children will one day confront horrific images of their loved ones online,” the lawsuit adds.
The sheriff’s department did not immediately have a comment on Tuesday.
Bryant previously filed a claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, in Los Angeles county superior court. The suit was filed on Thursday.
California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, has not yet signed a bill that would make it a misdemeanor for first responders to take unauthorized photos of deceased people at the scene of an accident or crime. The legislation was prompted by the crash photos.
Vanessa Bryant has also filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the helicopter company operator and the deceased pilot’s estate.