The widow of Kobe Bryant has won another legal battle in her lawsuit against Los Angeles County, this time with a court order that forces the county sheriff and fire chief to answer questions under oath about photos of her dead husband and daughter.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles Eick granted Vanessa Bryant’s request to compel the pretrial deposition testimony of L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and County Fire Chief Daryl Osby, two of the top public safety officials in the nation’s most populous county.
Bryant is suing the county for invasion of privacy and negligence, claiming that county sheriff’s and fire department employees improperly shared photos of human remains from a helicopter crash that killed the NBA legend, their daughter and seven others in January 2020.
Eick ruled that both Sheriff Villanueva and Fire Chief Osby appear to have “unique firsthand, non-repetitive knowledge relevant to the issues in this case” that is “not entirely obtainable” through other sources.
He limited the depositions to four hours each to minimize the diversion from their official tasks.
The ruling marks a defeat for the county, which sought to block their testimony, arguing that heads of government agencies such as Villanueva and Osby “are not normally subject to deposition, absent extraordinary circumstances.”
The county noted this rule protects officials “from discovery that will burden the performance of their duties, particularly given the frequency with which such officials are likely to be named in lawsuits.”
An attorney defending the county addressed the judge’s ruling Tuesday in a statement provided to USA TODAY Sports.
“While we disagree with the court’s decision, we will make both the Sheriff and Fire Chief available for deposition,” said the statement from Skip Miller, partner of the Miller Barondess law firm in Los Angeles. “Their testimony will not change the fact that there is no evidence any photos taken by County first responders have ever been publicly disseminated.”
As part of its defense against this lawsuit, the county also is seeking to compel Bryant to undergo a psychiatric exam – as a way to show she didn’t suffer the emotional distress she claims from any sharing of photos but rather from the tragic crash itself.
In a court document filed before the ruling, plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote that there is reason to believe Villanueva and Osby “know a great deal” about the issues at hand.
“Villanueva personally promised Mrs. Bryant that he would protect the remains of her husband and daughter from desecration by unauthorized photographers,” said the document submitted by Bryant’s attorney, Luis Li, and others. “He personally described the sharing of photos of human remains by law enforcement officers as a problem as old as the Polaroid camera, and he noted that police officers keep so-called ‘death books’ of such photos.”
The plaintiffs’ attorneys also stated that Osby was informed five days after the crash that “two members of his Department had improper photos of the victims’ remains in their possession.”
“But Osby waited to conduct any meaningful investigation of those reports until March,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys stated. “Within that time, the photos were turned into cocktail-hour entertainment at a public awards show. Plaintiffs are entitled to ask Chief Osby himself about this delay, as it pertains to the likelihood the photos will someday surface and whether spoliation occurred.”
In a separate ruling Monday, Eick granted another request by Bryant to gain access to the phone records of a retired fire captain, Brian Jordan, who was rebuked last year by the county fire department after it determined his photographs from the crash scene had “no legitimate business purpose” and “only served to appeal to baser instincts and desires for what amounted to visual gossip,” according to court records obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
Villanueva has been a lightning rod of sorts as sheriff in the entertainment capital, including with his role in the car crash investigation involving golfer Tiger Woods and his recent resistance to testifying before an oversight commission.
The trial in the crash-scene photos case is scheduled for February. Bryant is seeking compensatory and punitive damages to punish the deputy defendants and “make an example of them to the community.” Earlier this month, she also testified in a deposition in the case and recounted how she learned of her husband’s and daughter’s death.