A “culture of callousness” saw emergency service workers take and share pictures of Kobe Bryant’s body, a court has been told.
Photographs were taken of the basketball star – and other victims of a helicopter crash – by Los Angeles County deputies and firefighters, a lawyer for Bryant’s widow told a jury on Wednesday.
The 41-year-old Lakers icon was killed in the smash alongside his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others two years ago.
Vanessa Bryant’s lawyer, Luis Li, told jurors in his opening statement in her invasion of privacy trial against the county the mobile phone pictures shot at the scene by a deputy and fire captain were “visual gossip” viewed “for a laugh” and had no official purpose.
“They were shared by deputies playing video games,” Mr Li said.
“They were shared repeatedly with people who had absolutely no reason to receive them.”
A lawyer for the county defended the photographs as an essential tool for emergency service workers seeking to share information when they thought they might still save lives at the chaotic, dangerous and hard-to-reach crash scene in the Calabasas hills west of LA.
“Site photography is essential,” Jennifer Mira Hashmall said.
Mrs Bryant cried frequently during her lawyer’s presentation.
She was still wiping tears from her eyes minutes afterward during a break.
Mr Li told jurors that learning a month after the crash about the photos’ circulation not from the county but the Los Angeles Times compounded her still-raw suffering.
“January 26 2020 was the worst day of Vanessa Bryant’s life. The county made it much worse,” Mr Li said.
“They poured salt in an open wound and rubbed it in.”
Mr Li played jurors CCTV footage of an off-duty sheriff’s deputy drinking at a bar and showing the photos to the barman, who shakes his head in dismay.
The lawyer then showed an image of the men laughing together later.
Mr Li described firefighters looking at the phone photos two weeks later at an awards banquet, and showed the jury an animated chart documenting their spread to nearly 30 people.
Mr Li said the county failed to conduct a thorough investigation to make sure every copy of the photo was accounted for, and because of the fear that they will someday surface, and her surviving children may see them online, Mrs Bryant “will be haunted by what they did forever”.
During the defence’s opening statement, Ms Hashmall told jurors the fact the pictures have not appeared in more than two years shows leaders in the sheriff’s and fire services did their jobs.
“They’re not online. They’re not in the media. They’ve never even been seen by the plaintiffs themselves,” she said.
“That is not an accident. That is a function of how diligent they were.”
Sheriff Alex Villanueva and department officials immediately brought in all those involved and ordered them to delete the pictures, rather than conduct a long official investigation that might harm the families further, she said.
“He picked what he viewed as the only option — decisive action,” Ms Hashmall said.
“He felt like every second mattered.”
Ms Hashmall told the jury the reason Mr Li even had the video of the barman to show, which she suggested was deceptively edited to show the men laughing together, was because the sheriff’s department got it the same day they received a complaint from another punter who witnessed the sharing.
She said the deputy was struggling emotionally from the difficulty of dealing with the crash scene, and that the barman was a longtime friend in whom he was confiding.
“He pulled out his phone, and that should not have happened,” she said.
“In a lapse, in a moment of weakness, he showed those photos, and he has regretted it every day of his life.”
The defence lawyer urged jurors to look past the grief of those who brought the lawsuit and focus on the matter before them.
“There is no doubt these families have suffered,” she said.
“It’s unspeakable. But this case is not about the loss from the crash. It’s about the pictures.”
Chris Chester, whose wife, Sara, and daughter Payton were also killed in the crash, is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified millions.
The county already agreed to pay 2.5 million dollars (£2.05 million) to settle a similar case brought by two families whose relatives died in the crash on January 26 2020.
Mrs Bryant and Mr Chester declined to settle.
Kobe Bryant, Gianna, and other parents and players were flying to a girls’ basketball tournament when their chartered helicopter crashed in the fog.
Safety officials later blamed pilot error.