Crash-photo lawsuits from Vanessa Bryant and O.C. man are combined

A federal judge has ruled to combine similar lawsuits against Los Angeles County by Vanessa Bryant and an Orange County man whose wife and daughter were among nine people, including Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna, killed in a helicopter crash in January 2020.

The lawsuits, filed by Vanessa Bryant and Christopher Chester, both allege that the LA County Sheriff and Fire Department, among other defendants, violated their 14th Amendment rights after county officials shared photos of the Calabasas crash site.

A copy of U.S. District Judge John F. Walter’s order was not available Tuesday, but Mira Hashmall, the district’s lead attorney in the Bryant case, confirmed the decision to The Times in a statement.

“We are not surprised that Judge Walter decided to try the Bryant and Chester cases together, but he confirmed that each plaintiff must fulfill his or her own burden of proof in court,” Hashmall said. “And while plaintiffs wish to argue that there was a widespread custom and practice of improperly sharing accident photos by first responders, there is no evidence and they will not be able to prove it.”

Walter didn’t think Sheriff Alex Villanueva was wrong when he ordered deputies to delete the photos lest they be released, the attorney said, noting that no county photos were released.

Bryant and Chester’s attorneys did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

In a July 15 brief filed in support of bringing the cases together, Bryant’s attorney argued that a single trial would “encourage efficiency, reduce costs for everyone involved, and reduce the risk of conflicting judgments.”

County lawmakers and firefighters took “graphic close-up photos of human remains scattered about the crash site” and shared the photos “randomly” within and outside their departments, according to the order.

The document related to an incident two days after the crash in which Joey Cruz, a deputy trainee, showed a bartender in Norwalk graphic photos of the crash site that were sent to him by another deputy. The brief did not name Cruz and only referred to “a LASD deputy [who] displayed photos of remains in a bar.”

After Cruz left, the bartender told a real estate investor seated in a nearby booth that the deputy had shown him photos of Bryant’s remains. Later that night, the man decided to report what he had heard to the Sheriff’s Department.

The email soon reached Villanueva, who was quick to offer MPs amnesty from discipline if they came clean and deleted the photos.

About three weeks after the January 26, 2020 crash, Capt. Tony Imbrenda, a spokesman for the LA County Fire Department, was at an awards ceremony recognizing radio and television journalists at the Hilton Hotel in Universal City.

During cocktail hour, Imbrenda showed some firefighters his photos of the crash near their spouses. A firefighter’s wife complained, according to internal fire department records filed with the court. Around the time reports of photo sharing surfaced, Imbrenda deleted about 45 photos and directed eight to 10 others to do the same, he said in a statement.

The deletions and the possibility that photos of the crash site could be released bolster both lawsuits.

“Deletions continued after the legal battle began, with at least [10] Witnesses known to have photos of remains from the crash site who erased or replaced their phones before they could be forensically examined,” the brief said. “None of the other devices that these witnesses may possess (computers, laptops, iPads, other phones, etc.) have ever been examined. Nor has an investigation reached all of their iCloud or other online cloud storage systems.”

In a July 13 briefing, county attorneys argued that combining the cases “would create a risk of jury confusion and jeopardize a fair trial.”

“Chester is unable to provide evidence of photographs showing loved ones,” the district’s statement said. “Unlike in the Bryant case, where witnesses testified through pictures of Kobe Bryant, no witness has ever testified to having seen a photograph showing Chester’s family members.”

LA County attorneys accused Chester of “riding Bryant’s coattails” and attempting to capitalize on evidence unique to the Bryant case.

Unlike Bryant, Chester does not live in the public eye and “has no reasonable basis for his concern that photos of his family will be publicly distributed,” the county brief said.

A brief filed July 15 by Chester’s attorney denied those claims.

“The admissions and conduct of the defendants’ own employees show that photographs of all the deceased were taken on the morning of the accident and later shared,” the brief said.

Walter scheduled the trial for the second week of August and ruled that 10 jurors would be used for the federal civil trial, in which a verdict must be unanimous.

The judge gave the parties nine days to try the case in federal court in downtown.

During a pretrial hearing Tuesday, Walter also decided to allow the county to try forensic psychiatrist Dr. Calling Marc Cohen as a defense witness to investigate Bryant’s claims of emotional distress over fears that images from the crash site – all of which were said to have been destroyed – would be released publicly one day.

The City News Service contributed to this report. Crash-photo lawsuits from Vanessa Bryant and O.C. man are combined

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