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Court Refuses to Dismiss Vanessa Bryant’s Lawsuit Against L.A. County Over Photos of Deadly Helicopter Crash


Vanessa and Kobe Bryant

Vanessa Bryant’s lawsuit which accuses Los Angeles County of improperly sharing graphic photos of her husband’s fatal helicopter crash will move forward toward trial. A federal judge denied the county’s motion to dismiss the case on Wednesday.

The 2020 helicopter crash killed NBA legend Kobe Bryant, daughter Gianna Bryant, and seven other people.

Vanessa Bryant alleges that first responders shared graphic images of the crash with multiple sheriff’s deputies, allowing the gruesome pictures to be secreted on personal cell phones and later to become a source of gossip within the department.

L.A. County has admitted that photos were taken, and even that at least one photograph was shared in order to “impress a woman at a bar,” but the county denies that the images were further disseminated.

“We identified the deputies involved, they came to the station on their own and had admitted they had taken them and they had deleted them,” the sheriff told Los Angeles television station KNBC in March 2020. “And we’re content that those involved did that.”

L.A. County filed a motion for summary judgment in late November. The motion asked U.S. District Judge John F. Walter (a George W. Bush appointee) to dismiss Bryant’s lawsuit. The county argued that Bryant’s lawsuit was deficient as a matter of law because the photos in question “have never been in the media, on the Internet, or otherwise publicly disseminated.” Walter, however, disagreed.

Judge Walter’s two-page, five-paragraph order provided no more than basic insight into the court’s decision-making process. Rather, Walter recited standard legal rules — explaining that a dismissal on summary judgment grounds is only appropriate when there is no genuine dispute between the parties regarding the facts central to the case and where one party is entitled to prevail as a matter of law.

“In ruling on a summary judgment motion, ‘the judge’s function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial,'” the judge noted while citing a U.S. Supreme Court case. “‘Credibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions.'”

“For the reasons stated in Plaintiff’s Opposition, the Court concludes that there are genuine issues of material fact for trial,” Walter wrote while denying the county’s motion and setting the case on track for trial.

Summary judgment motions are notoriously difficult to win, and a loss at this early stage in litigation does not indicate anything with respect to the strength of Bryant’s underlying allegations. Rather, the court’s ruling Wednesday means the case requires an evaluation of factual evidence, which will be collected during the discovery process.

Skip Miller, a partner at the Miller Barondess law firm and outside counsel for L.A. County, provided the following statement to Law&Crime via email Thursday:

We respectfully disagree with the Court’s ruling. The fact remains that the County did not cause Ms. Bryant’s loss and, as was promised on the day of the crash, none of the County’s accident site photos were ever publicly disseminated. The County did its job and looks forward to showing that at trial.

Vanessa Bryant’s attorneys did not immediately respond to Law&Crime’s request for comment.

Read the judge’s order below:

[Image via Presley Ann/Getty Images for Baby2Baby]

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos