Two years after the tragic helicopter crash that claimed the lives of her husband, Kobe, and daughter, Gianna, Vanessa Bryant finds herself in the midst of a contentious legal battle.
Bryant filed a lawsuit in September 2020, alleging she and her family have suffered emotional distress because Los Angeles County police and fire department employees took and shared gruesome photos at the crash site. She doesn’t appear to be willing to settle with the county, meaning this case is on track to go to trial in the near future.
Why is Bryant pursuing this case? And what could come next? Here is everything we know about her lawsuit.
How did Kobe and Gianna Bryant die?
Kobe, Gianna and seven others all sustained “immediately fatal injuries” on Jan. 26, 2020 when the helicopter taking them to an AAU basketball game crashed into a Southern California hillside, according to autopsies from the Los Angeles County’s coroner’s office. The reports indicated all passengers “almost certainly” died instantly because of blunt force trauma.
Ara Zobayan, the pilot of the helicopter, did not have alcohol or drugs in his system. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined pilot error caused the crash, as Zobayan “ignored his training, violated flight rules by flying into conditions where he couldn’t see and failed to take alternate measures.”
Who were the victims in the helicopter crash?
Here are the nine people who died in the helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020:
- Kobe Bryant
- Gianna Bryant
- John Altobelli
- Keri Altobelli
- Alyssa Altobelli
- Payton Chester
- Sarah Chester
- Christina Mauser
- Ara Zobayan
What to know about Vanessa Bryant’s lawsuit
Bryant is seeking damages for “negligence, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress” after first responders allegedly took and shared photos of human remains at the crash site.
“Emotional distress means that not only do I have to grieve to the loss of my husband and child, but for the rest of my life I’m going to have to fear that these photographs of my husband and child will be leaked,” Bryant said as part of her Oct. 12 deposition (via The New York Times). “And I do not want my little girls or I to ever have to see their remains in that matter. Nor do I think it’s right that the photographs were taken in the first place because it’s already tough enough that I have to experience this heartache and this loss.
“But now to live the rest of my life having to fear those photographs surfacing is something that I, I have to deal with every single day.”
Bryant’s lawyers claim photos of Kobe and Gianna’s bodies were spread to at least 28 Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department devices as well as the devices of a dozen firefighters, per the Los Angeles Times. They also say the people who possessed the photos “deleted them, reset their phones or swapped them for new phones,” which makes it impossible to know how many others may have seen them.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has not denied the photos were taken and deleted, but lawyers for the county have argued that Bryant can’t be suffering from emotional distress because she hasn’t seen the photos and they weren’t shared publicly. They pushed for an independent medical examination of Bryant in order to determine whether the distress was caused by county employees sharing photos or the crash itself and the deaths of Kobe and Gianna. Bryant’s lawyers responded by calling the examinations “cruel,” per The New York Times.
“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,” Bryant’s lawyers said.
Bryant was not forced to submit an evaluation, but she was ordered to turn over documents related to her treatment with a therapist dating back to 2017.
“The county continues to have nothing but the deepest sympathy for the enormous grief Ms. Bryant suffered as a result of the tragic helicopter accident,” Skip Miller, an outside attorney for Los Angeles County, told E! News. “Our motion for access to her medical records, however, is a standard request in lawsuits where a plaintiff demands millions of dollars for claims of emotional distress. I have an obligation to take this step to defend the county.”
Vanessa Bryant’s deposition
In her deposition, Bryant recounted the events of Jan. 26, 2020, the day of the helicopter crash. She also explained why she filed the lawsuit against Los Angeles County.
— On how she found out about the crash: “[A family assistant] told me that there was an accident and that there were five survivors. And I asked her if Gianna and Kobe were okay. And she said she wasn’t sure. She didn’t know. … I tried calling my husband. … I tried getting hold of my mom. As soon as I was on the phone with my mom, I was holding onto my phone, because obviously I was trying to call my husband back, and all these notifications started popping up on my phone, saying RIP Kobe. RIP Kobe. RIP Kobe.”
— On her conversation with Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who confirmed the deaths of Kobe and Gianna: “Sheriff Villanueva tells me what happened. And he says, ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ And I said: ‘If you can’t bring my husband and baby back, please make sure no one takes photographs of them. Please secure the area.’ And he said: ‘I will.’ I said: ‘No, I need you to get on the phone right now and I need you to make sure that you secure the area.’ So he excused himself. He came back and he said: ‘All is good. The area is secure. There’s an umbrella over the area.'”
— On recovering items from the crash site: “I have my husband’s and my daughter’s clothing in my possession. And I can say that they — they suffered a lot. And if their clothes represent the condition of their bodies, I cannot imagine how someone could be so callous and have no regard for them or our friends, and just share the images as if they were animals on a street. We’re not talking about — I really don’t want to get into details. I can only say that their clothing represents a lot. … I had to recover all their items because I know people are sick and would like to take pictures of them and share them. So I wanted to make sure that I recovered everything that I possibly could.”
— On what she is seeking with this lawsuit: “I want accountability. … I don’t want this to ever happen to anybody else. I don’t think it’s right. … I don’t think it’s right that I have to deal with this; that my kids have to deal with this when they get older and they become aware of what happened; that our friends have to deal with this. I don’t think it’s fair that I’m here today having to fight for accountability. Because no one should ever have to endure this type of pain and fear of their family members. The pictures getting released, this is not okay. … I just don’t understand how someone can have no regard for life and compassion, and, instead, choose to take that opportunity to photograph lifeless and helpless individuals for their own sick amusement.”
Will Vanessa Bryant’s case go to trial?
Lawyers for Los Angeles County requested Bryant’s lawsuit be dismissed in a November filing, but that request was denied by U.S. District Court Judge John F. Walter in early January. Walter ruled there are “genuine issues of material facts for trial,” according to CNN.
“We respectfully disagree with the court’s ruling,” Miller said in a statement. “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 trial could begin as soon as next month. Bryant is seeking compensatory and punitive damages.
When asked during the deposition if she is seeking money in this lawsuit, Bryant responded, “That would be up to the jury. I don’t — I’m not asking for a dollar amount.”