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Judge Orders L.A. County Sheriff and Fire Chief to Sit for Depositions in Vanessa Bryant Lawsuit

Vanessa Bryant

Vanessa Bryant shown crying as she speaks during The Celebration of Life for Kobe & Gianna Bryant at Staples Center on February 24, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.

Vanessa Bryant, widow of basketball legend Kobe Bryant and mother of Gianna Bryant, scored a win at the discovery phase of her lawsuit against Los Angeles County over the alleged sharing of unauthorized photos of the helicopter crash that killed her husband, daughter, and seven other people in January 2020. A federal magistrate judge has ruled in Bryant’s favor and ordered the depositions of Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby.

Bryant and the other families of the crash victims sued L.A. County, claiming that first responders took and leaked graphic photographs online. They have made claims for violation of civil and privacy rights as well as emotional distress. As part of the case, the plaintiffs requested depositions of several high-profile county officials, but the county filed a motion for a protective order, seeking to shield Villanueva and Osby from being deposed.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles Eick, however, sided with the plaintiffs, ruling ruled that the two officials must testify as they have “unique first-hand, non-repetitive knowledge” about the case that is not available through less intrusive methods of discovery.

Judge Eick did put a time limit on the depositions, ruling that in order to “to minimize the diversion of the deponents from ‘perform[ing] their official tasks,'” the depositions cannot exceed four hours. The plaintiffs had also requested that the judge order a specific timetable for the depositions, but Eick refused to go that far. So long as the parties “proceed promptly and in good faith,” inserting the court into the scheduling aspect of the discovery process was unnecessary.

The controversy over Villanueva’s and Osby’s depositions is just the latest in several discovery battles related to the lawsuit. Just days before battling over the depositions, L.A. County filed a motion seeking to compel psychiatric evaluations of Vanessa Bryant and the other plaintiffs, including three children, ages 13, 10, and 5. The county reasoned that a court-ordered evaluation is necessary to assess the full extent of the plaintiff’s emotional injuries.

In court documents filed on Oct. 22, plaintiffs characterized the county’s discovery tactics as “pull[ing] out all the stops to make the case as painful as possible for the victims in the hopes that they give up and go away.” LA County, according to plaintiffs, has demanded “every single piece of paper regarding any therapy Plaintiffs have received over the last decade,” the young plaintiffs’ middle school report cards, information about Vanessa Bryant’s sexual and relationship histories, and even, “Mrs. Bryant’s most private and deeply personal communications with her closest friends about the emotional devastation caused by the tragic loss of her husband and daughter.”

Based on the county’s aggressive discovery demands, argued Bryant and the other plaintiffs, “[t]he County’s message is clear: when public servants violate the privacy and constitutional rights of the citizens they swore to protect and serve, the victims must run a gauntlet to seek justice.”

Two families of crash victims proceeded in a similar but separate lawsuit against L.A. County. A settlement has been reached in that separate lawsuit, which is currently awaiting review by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. Under the terms of the settlement, Matthew Mauser, whose wife Christina Mauser died in the crash, would receive $1.25 million. Siblings J.J. Altobelli and Alexis Altobelli who lost their mother Keri Altobelli, father John Altobelli, and sister Alyssa Altobelli would share a $1.25 million payout.

Skip Miller, partner of the Miller Barondess law firm and outside counsel for L.A. County in the case, provided the following statement to Law&Crime on Thursday:

“We believe these proposed settlements of $1.25 million are reasonable and fair to all concerned. We are pleased that the Mauser and Altobelli families, who as private citizens suffered the same grief and loss as others, will be able to move forward after these settlements, which are subject to final approval by the Board of Supervisors. We also hope that eventually the other families will be able to do the same.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to request for comment.

[image via Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images]

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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