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Los Angeles County wants a judge to force Kobe Bryant's widow to undergo a psychiatric evaluation to prove she suffered emotional distress from leaked photos of the crash that killed her husband, daughter and seven others.
Yet despite the lawsuits filed by Vanessa Bryant and other relatives of those killed in the January 2020 helicopter crash, which allege that images from the scene were taken and shared by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies and firefighters, the county is refusing to allow Sheriff Alex Villaneuva or county Fire Chief Daryl Osby to be deposed.
Bryant says she suffered severe emotional distress after learning of the photos, arguing they compounded the loss of her husband, Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, and their 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.
The county's lawyers argued in a filing Friday that Bryant must submit to an independent medical examination before the federal trial in February 2022. In asking the judge to compel the exam, they said that she"cannot be suffering distress from accident site photos that they have never seen and that were never publicly disseminated."
Bryant and other families of the crash victims filed lawsuits last fall seeking undisclosed damages for emotional distress and a violation of their civil rights and privacy. Bryant has said the sheriff personally assured her the photographs taken at the crash site in Calabasas had not been disseminated, though it was later revealed a deputy had showed some of the photos in a bar.
"Unable to defend the indefensible conduct of its employees who took and shared horrific photographs of plaintiff's loved ones ... the county has resorted to a scorched earth discovery tactic designed to bully plaintiffs into abandoning their pursuit of accountability," Bryant's attorney, Luis Li, argued in opposing the motion.
Li also said it was "adding insult to injury" for the county to refuse to make the sheriff and fire chief available for a routine deposition that the surviving families have already endured. He also questioned whether the five county supervisors supported such a move.
Skip Miller, partner of the Miller Barondess law firm, which is representing L.A. County, said that “the fact remains that no crash site photos taken by first responders have ever been publicly disseminated."
"We totally sympathize with the enormous loss Ms. Bryant has suffered," Miller said. "But as a legal matter, we don’t believe she could be harmed by something that didn’t occur.”
Although Villanueva has already been dismissed from the lawsuit, a Times investigation revealed that he ordered the deletion of the photos. He has said he did that to prevent their distribution and potential publication. A former captain warned that the move could constitute an order to destroy evidence.
Bryant has identified four deputies she says shared the grim photos: Raul Versales, Rafael Mejia, Joey Cruz and Michael Russell. Two Los Angeles County firefighters are facing termination proceedings and a third was suspended in connection with the leaked images.
Bryant's lawsuit alleges that Versales obtained multiple photographs of the crash scene on Jan. 26, 2020, while stationed at a makeshift command post and he shared them with members of the Sheriff's Department, including Mejia and a detective.
Mejia shared the photos with Cruz, a trainee in the department at the time, who then sent them to Russell, according to the lawsuit.
Two days later, while Cruz was at his mother's home, court records indicate that he showed the photos to his niece. That same day, at the Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk, he spoke about working the scene of the crash and was captured on the bar's security camera zooming in and out of the images while showing them to the bartender, the lawsuit says.
The bartender described the images to a group sitting at a nearby table. One patron was so disturbed by what he heard, he filed a complaint with the Sheriff's Department, which The Times reviewed.
The agency tried to keep a lid on the episode, opening an investigation only after The Times disclosed that the deputies had obtained the photos and were showing them to others.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.