Two Years After Kobe Bryant’s Death, Litigation Is Far from Over
Photo Source: Matthew Peoples, Helicopter, Flickr (Sept. 25, 2012) (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
By: Maeve Hyer Posted: 02/17/2022
NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, tragically passed away two years ago. A helicopter crash took their lives and the lives of all the passengers on board, including three girls accompanied by their parents and coaches. Before the end of the day, first responders allegedly took photographs of the deceased, against Vanessa Bryant’s wishes. By the end of the year, Vanessa Bryant filed a lawsuit against L.A. County seeking compensatory and punitive damages for negligence, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Vanessa Bryant alleges that law enforcement officers took photos of her husband’s remains at the accident scene and subsequently shared those photos with others. News outlets have reported these officers shared the photos with bartenders, girlfriends, wives, and other family members. Vanessa’s anxiety allegedly hit an all-time high when rumors circulated that the photos were distributed publicly, with numerous accounts on Twitter and Instagram reporting to have viewed them. Under the LA County Sheriff’s Department’s regulations, information learned at scenes that are not accessible to the general public, such as mass casualty incidents, are only to be shared with or disclosed to lead investigators or their supervisors.
Basis of the Suit
Vanessa brought her frustrations regarding the release of photos to the Sherriff’s department, and Sheriff Villanueva stated that the photos the eight individuals took of the scene were deleted. Vanessa found no comfort in this type of assurance as the opportunity for circulation had already ensued. Fearing that one day her family would come into contact with these photos of the gruesome scene, she alleges that she experienced severe emotional distress.
Hurdles of the Case to Date
By seeking damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress, Vanessa opened the door to admissibility of her emotional state before, during, and after the alleged distribution of photos. Lawyers for L.A. County argued for access to Vanessa’s medical records to determine whether the emotional distress stemmed from the crash itself or the subsequent knowledge of the photographs. Due to this disputed fact, the Court compelled Vanessa and her therapist to produce documents relating to their sessions. Vanessa’s lawyers raised privacy concerns in light of this order; however, the judge noted that due to an existing protective order, the case would secure her privacy. This ruling came after the defendants’ request for Vanessa to undergo psychiatric evaluation, which the judge denied.
The County moved for summary judgment on Nov. 23, 2021. Vanessa Bryant filed a motion in opposition on December 7, noting disputes of facts related to the intent of the law officials in taking the photographs, the activity at the scene of the accidence, the circulation of the photographs, and the vagueness of the facts the defendants presented. Summary judgment is proper where “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Due to the disputed material facts raised in Plaintiff’s Opposition, the Court denied Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment.
What’s to Come
Vanessa Bryant will have a trial before a jury against L.A. County on February 22, closely following the two-year anniversary of Kobe and Gianna’s passing. The county does not dispute whether the photographs were taken; rather, the main issue to be addressed is whether the photographs were the proximate cause of Vanessa Bryant’s emotional distress. The case will turn on whether the jury finds the distress caused by the death of her husband and daughter or from the alleged photograph circulation. The Bryants hope this case will make an example of the Sheriff’s department by holding them publicly accountable.
*Staff Writer, Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal, J.D. Candidate May 2023, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.
 See BBC News, Kobe Bryant’s Wife Vanessa First Heard of His Death Online, BBC (Oct. 24, 2021), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-59024491 (noting Vanessa Bryant heard of her husband’s, daughter’s deaths by notifications from online platforms).
 See ESPN News Services, Kobe Bryant, Daughter Gianna Die in Helicopter Crash, ESPN (Jan. 26, 2020), https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/28569438/kobe-bryant-daughter-gianna-die-helicopter-crash (occurring in Calabasas, Cal., while traveling to youth basketball game).
 Def.’s Notice of Removal, Bryant v. Cnty. of L.A., No. 20-9582, 1-66, 3-4 (C.D. Cal. Oct. 19, 2020) [hereinafter Copy of Complaint], https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/18554820/1/4/vanessa-bryant-v-county-of-los-angeles/ (last visited Feb. 4, 2022) (“[n]o fewer than eight sheriffs deputies at the crash site pulled out their personal cell phones and snapped photos of the dead children, parents, and coaches.”).
 See id. at 2 (providing original complaint, listing claims).
 See id. at 25 (noting Sheriff’s Department assured reasonable measures of securing the scene).
 See Johnathan Abrams, New Filings Suggest Kobe Bryant Crash Photos Spread Widely Among Workers, N.Y. Times (Dec. 7, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/07/sports/basketball/kobe-bryant-crash-photos.html (noting this type of behavior is not allowed under regulations for law enforcement officers).
 See Copy of Complaint at 32, Bryant v. Cnty. of L.A., No. 20-9582 (C.D. Cal. Oct. 19, 2020) (stating one user claimed images of Kobe’s, Gianna’s remains are being bought, shared, sold on dark web).
 See id. at 45-52 (supplementing exhibit with excerpt of LA County Sheriff’s Department Manual).
 See id. at 30 (stating he hopes outcome is no photos will be circulated anywhere).
 See id. at 40 (noting abuse of access of her loved ones’ remains has caused her severe pain).
 See id. at 33 (fearing her children may find images once they become older, leading them to fully realize what happened in accident).
 Fed. R. Evid. 401.
 See Stella Chan & Thersa Waldrop, Vanessa Bryant Must Provide Therapy Records in Lawsuit over Fatal Crash Photos, Judge Rules, CNN (Nov. 16, 2021), https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/16/us/vanessa-bryant-therapy-records-lawsuit/index.html (noting defendant’s believe distress stems from crash itself, rather than incident of photos being shared).
 See Abrams, supra note 6 (spanning Jan 1, 2017, to present).
 See Brent Schrotenboer, Judge Rules Kobe Bryant’s Widow Vanessa Must Turn Over Private Therapy Records, USA Today (Nov. 15, 2021), https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nba/2021/11/15/kobe-bryants-widow-vanessa-ordered-turn-over-her-therapy-records/8632015002/ (stating “purpose in seeking this discovery appears neither abusive nor harassing.”).
 See Karen Mizoguchi, Vanessa Bryant Ordered to Submit 4 Years of Therapy Records in Law Suit Over Leaked Kobe Crash Photos, People (Nov. 16, 2021), https://people.com/sports/vanessa-bryant-ordered-to-submit-therapy-records-in-lawsuit-over-crash-photos/ (reporting county disputes photographs were proximate cause of emotional distress).
 See Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss, Part 2, 1-21 at 9, Bryant v. Cnty. of L.A., No. 20-9582 (C.D. Cal. Oct. 19, 2020) https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/18554820/169/vanessa-bryant-v-county-of-los-angeles/ (last visited Feb. 14, 2022) (noting summary judgment is appropriate if there is no genuine dispute of material fact) .
 See Pl.’s Opp. to Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss, Part 1, 1-30 at 22, Bryant v. Cnty. Of L.A., No. 20-9582 (C.D. Cal. Oct. 19, 2020) [hereinafter Pl.’s Opp.], https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/18554820/191/vanessa-bryant-v-county-of-los-angeles/ (last visited Feb. 14, 2022) (asserting defense is undermining details of case and providing too vague of facts that undercut gravity of situation).
 Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a).
 See Pl.’s Opp. at 28, Bryant v. Cnty. of L.A., No. 20-9582 (noting “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”).
 See Brent Schrotenboer, Kobe Bryant’s Widow Wins Key Court Ruling in Lawsuit Over Photos of Human Remains from Helicopter Crash, USA Today (Jan. 5, 2022) https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/2022/01/05/kobe-bryant-widow-vanessa-wins-court-ruling-case-over-body-photos/9110800002/ (following one month after pair’s anniversary).
 See Causation for Personal Injury Cases, JUSTIA (Oct. 2021), https://www.justia.com/injury/negligence-theory/actual-and-proximate-cause/ (noting factfinder must find photos were legal cause of injury).
 See id. (noting plaintiff’s injury must be reasonably foreseeable result of defendant’s act).
 See Richard Winton, Judge Rejects L.A. County’s Bid to Dismiss Vanessa Bryant’s Lawsuit Over Crash Photos, LA Times (Jan. 5, 2022), https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-01-05/federal-judge-rejected-effort-by-la-county-to-dismiss-vanessa-bryants-lawsuit-over-crash-photos (reporting L.A. County Board of Supervisions agreed on a $2.5 million settlement with two other families whose loved ones were lost).