By FRED SHUSTER
LOS ANGELES – Citing a backlog of criminal cases and coronavirus concerns, a federal judge Friday postponed trial of a lawsuit brought by Kobe Bryant’s widow against Los Angeles County involving photos taken at the scene of the helicopter crash that took the lives of the NBA legend, the couple’s 13-year-old daughter and seven others.
U.S. District Judge John Walter also ordered the parties into a second round of closed-door settlement talks that could avoid trial now set for July 18 — entirely.
“I really urge counsel to settle this case,” the judge said at the conclusion of a two-hour-plus pretrial conference conducted via Zoom. “I understand it’s a difficult case to settle … it just seems to me to be a case that needs to be settled.”
Trial was expected to begin with jury selection at the downtown Los Angeles federal courthouse on Feb. 22. Attorneys for both sides filed thousands of pages of briefs, motions and other documents after mediation attempts failed in June.
Walter indicated that if the case went to trial, the best outcome for the widow would probably be a punitive damages verdict against the three county employees who could be shown to have taken and/or shared crash scene photos.
The judge appeared to question the overall value for Bryant of such a cash verdict against the employees, particularly since a far more effective remedy has already been put into place. As a result of issues brought up in the case, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law legislation that makes it illegal for first responders to take unauthorized pictures of people killed at the scene of an accident or crime.
Bryant’s lawsuit, which names a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputy and two county fire captains among plaintiffs, is requesting damages for negligence, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The NBA star and daughter Gianna were killed along with seven others when a helicopter taking them to a youth basketball tournament crashed in the hills of Calabasas on Jan. 26, 2020.
Three days afterwards, a deputy sheriff visited a Norwalk bar where he allegedly showed a bartender some gruesome photos taken at the crash site. That resulted in a citizen complaint to the department.
Bryant, 39, also alleged that less than a month after the crash, an L.A. County Fire Department official showed crash scene photos on his cellphone to friends attending the 2020 Golden Mike awards gala.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva later acknowledged that the department ordered deputies to delete any images from the crash scene from their devices.
“Any award against individual defendants would be paid by the agency (that employs them),” the judge said Friday. “Punitive damages against one sheriff’s deputy and two fire officials … are not going to be substantial.”
Walter further said that to force plaintiffs to sit through a trial “where we’re all going to do our best not to raise the very painful issues that exist in this case” would not appear to be “beneficial” to the emotional health of relatives of those lost in the crash.
In a declaration, Vanessa Bryant said media reports of shared photos “caused me tremendous pain and distress,” and she feared for the future if the images were posted on the internet. An attorney for Bryant said the minimum he would request of the jury would be $1 million, but did not give the maximum amount he would ask.
The county maintains that the digital images were never publicly disseminated in any fashion — so Bryant’s claim of having to fear the photographs surfacing does not constitute grounds for her suit.
The judge Friday deferred on announcing whether he would try a similar lawsuit — brought by Chris Chester, who lost his wife and daughter in the crash — separately or to consolidate the Chester and Bryant complaints if the cases go to trial.
Walter ordered that the parties complete settlement talks by April 11.