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Los Angeles County Says Man Whose Wife and Daughter Died in Kobe Bryant Helicopter Crash Shouldn’t ‘Ride Coattails’ of Late NBA Star’s Wife


Vanessa and Kobe Bryant shown above.

Los Angeles County has asked a federal judge to keep Vanessa Bryant‘s lawsuit over the sharing of photographs of the fatal helicopter crash that killed basketball star Kobe Bryant separate from the lawsuit of another family involved in the crash. The county says Christopher Chester, whose wife and 13-year-old daughter were among the nine people killed in the January 2020 crash, should not be permitted to “ride Bryant’s coattails” by consolidating his case with Vanessa Bryant’s.

The cases are proceeding in U.S. District Court in California before U.S. District Judge John F. Walter, a George W. Bush appointee, and Magistrate Judge Charles F. Eick.

Both Vanessa Bryant and Christopher Chester have sued L.A. County, accusing it of improperly sharing graphic photos of the tragic crash. Both lawsuits allege that first responders shared 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, but denies that photos were further disseminated.

The county filed opposition to the motion Wednesday arguing that while her case and Chester’s case “arise from the same tragic incident,” they are different enough that “Consolidating them for trial would create jury confusion and risk a fair trial.”

Attorneys for the county say that while Vanessa Bryant’s witnesses have provided testimony about seeing pictures of Kobe Bryant, “Chester cannot point to any evidence of photos depicting his loved ones.” Because of this “significant gap in Chester’s evidence,” the county says it is “unlikely he can prove public dissemination and thereby establish a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The county went even a step farther and argued that Chester’s motion amounts to an attempt to “ride the coattails” of Kobe Bryant’s celebrity. From the motion:

Given Kobe Bryant’s worldwide recognition, Bryant’s case is distinct. Chester should not be permitted to ride Bryant’s coattails and benefit from critical evidence that only pertains to Bryant. Chester has shown his propensity to do this in nearly every pretrial filing and again at the July 8 pretrial conference.

In its opposition to the motion to consolidate, the county referred to a pretrial conference in which the court asked Chester’s lawyer whether there was evidence of disseminating of pictures of Chester’s family members. In response, says the county, “Chester’s lawyer dissembled” and “conflated the evidence in the two cases,” which “demonstrated the substantial prejudice to the County if the cases are tried together.”

The county continued, calling the litigation “a most unusual case.” “Kobe Bryant was a revered icon,” it said, and “The case brought by his widow, Vanessa Bryant, is highly charged and has already received a great deal of media coverage.” Because the cases are different, the county argue, “The Chester case should be dealt with alone, on its merits, and not bootstrap the Bryant case.”

The county argued that of the 40 witnesses deposed in the case, “not one could identify Chester’s loved ones in any of the photos taken by County personnel,” and “not a single document” identifies Chester’s family members in photos.

L.A. County has admitted that one sheriff’s deputy shared a photograph with a bartender. Chester now argues that when the bartender viewed the photograph, the deputy made a vertical hand gesture to describe a facial wound. Chester further argues that because his wife was the only passenger to suffer such a wound, that the deputy must have been referring to a photo of his wife. According to the county, though, Kobe and his daughter Gianna Bryant also suffered lacerations to their heads and faces.

Moreover, Chester also argued to the court that the bartender said they saw photos depicting “parts that are usually inside a human being,” which must have been referring to photos of his wife. By contrast, L.A. County says that “the actual evidence negates these claims.” According to the county, “The Coroner reports confirm that Kobe Bryant, John Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, and Christina Mauser all suffered injuries that resulted in the loss of internal organs.” It goes on to add, “And obviously, a person cannot be identified by looking at an internal organ (we’re surprised Chester would even make that argument).”

Apart from the differences in the details, the County also argued that there are significant emotional differences relevant to the claims of Bryant and Chester.  In its opposition statement, the county argues that, “Chester and Bryant will each testify about their unique emotional distress,” and that “Tying the two cases together will unfairly magnify and bolster both.” The county warned, that the case is “already a very sad situation, with great loss of life,” but that because it “is only about photos,” that separate juries should assess the emotional distress claims independently.

L.A. County said that at trial, Bryant will introduce evidence about ever-present paparazzi and the risk of photos being circulated on social media, and will call celebrities to testify such as Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka, Grammy-award winning singer Monica Arnold. By contrast, Chester will simply testify that “his emotional distress has manifested as sadness, anger, intermittent insomnia, nightmares, and self-medicating with alcohol.” Chester intends to call just one witness: his business partner.

From the county’s filing: “Unlike Bryant, Chester is not a celebrity with millions of social media followers. He is a private person who avoids the spotlight, and he was not worried about paparazzi in the hours following the death of his loved ones.” It warned that allowing the cases to proceed together would cause Chester to “unfairly reap the benefits of the significant impact Bryant and her celebrity witnesses will have on this case.”

Two other families of victims of the crash also filed separate lawsuits against L.A. County which have settled.

Counsel for Chester and Bryant did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Read the filing, 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