Kobe Bryant's widow Vanessa reveals witness list for upcoming trial over crash photos

·5 min read

An attorney for the widow of Kobe Bryant filed documents in federal court Thursday that previewed her scheduled trial next month against Los Angeles County, including the witnesses she plans to call in a case about photos of her dead husband and daughter from a helicopter crash in January 2020.

Vanessa Bryant’s witness list includes Bryant herself, Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, Pelinka’s wife Kristin, L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, Kobe Bryant’s sister Sharia Washington and Catherine Gasol, wife of Kobe Bryant’s former Lakers teammate Pau Gasol.

The trial scheduled for Feb. 22 is expected to last about 15 days and could include around 40 witnesses for Bryant alone, according to the documents. The case is "considerably more complex than anticipated" when it once was set for a three-day trial, according a statement filed by her attorney, Luis Li.

Bryant is suing the county for invasion of privacy and negligence, accusing county sheriff’s and fire department employees of improperly taking and sharing photos of human remains from the crash that killed nine, including the NBA legend and their daughter.

Investigators on Jan. 27, 2020, work the scene of a helicopter crash that killed former NBA basketball player Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others in Calabasas, California.
Investigators on Jan. 27, 2020, work the scene of a helicopter crash that killed former NBA basketball player Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others in Calabasas, California.

Pretrial evidence discovery "has shown that the close-up photos of Gianna and Kobe’s remains were passed around on at least twenty-eight Sheriff’s Department devices and by at least a dozen firefighters, and shown off in bars and at an awards gala," according to the statement from Li. "It has also shown that (county) Defendants engaged in a coverup, destroying the direct forensic evidence of their misconduct and requiring extensive circumstantial evidence to establish the full extent of that misconduct."

In its defense, the county said Bryant’s lawsuit has no legal merit and noted that the photos were not posted online or publicly disseminated outside of county personnel beyond an isolated incident at a bar two days after the crash. It said the photos were deleted and that the sheriff helped prevent the photos from being disseminated to the public at large after Bryant asked him to on the day of the crash.

To streamline the trial, the county wants this issue to be decided first as part of a two-part proceeding. It first wants to go to trial on the issue of whether the photos were publicly disseminated under the standard required by law for a case like this. The county says they were not and that it would save time to decide this issue first before advancing to other issues.

"Defendants will show that no (county) photos have been posted on the Internet, released in the media, or otherwise publicly disseminated," the county stated in court documents filed Thursday. "If Plaintiff (Bryant) cannot prove otherwise on this threshold issue, there is no need to waste weeks of the Court, jury, and parties’ time with the numerous other complex issues raised by Plaintiff’s claims."

Bryant opposes this and plans to call a series of witnesses to show the jury what happened and how it led her to suffer the emotional distress for which she is seeking damages in her lawsuit.

Her witness list includes county sheriff's and fire department employees, as well family friends, such as Rob Pelinka, who was with Bryant on the day of the crash and is expected to testify about Bryant's emotional distress and other observations.

Kristin Pelinka and Catherine Gasol also are friends of Bryant’s and similarly are expected to testify about her emotional distress. So is Sharia Washington, Kobe Bryant's sister.

In response to this, the county noted that these witnesses will testify that they never saw crash-site photos depicting the remains of Kobe or Gianna Bryant and that Vanessa Bryant never told them she had seen crash site photos she can trace to the county defendants. The county also said these witnesses will testify they are not aware of any crash-site photo depicting Kobe or Gianna Bryant being published in the media or made available online.

The county recently tried to get her lawsuit thrown out of court in summary judgment but didn’t succeed in that attempt after U.S. District Judge John F. Walter determined that "there are genuine issues of material fact for trial." The case therefore proceeds to trial in Los Angeles with pretrial disputes to be decided by the judge in coming weeks.

Attorneys for both sides discussed settling the case as recently as Dec. 23 but so far have not reached a resolution, according to court documents. By contrast, two other families who lost loved ones in the same crash agreed to accept $1.25 million payments from the county to end their own similar lawsuits over crash-site photos.

Bryant is expected to testify herself, much like she did in a pretrial deposition in October. Court documents filed Thursday state she is expected to testify about her experience on the day of the crash and her interactions with Villanueva, the sheriff.

"Mrs. Bryant is also expected to testify regarding the emotional distress she has suffered as a result of Defendants’ employees taking, sharing, and displaying photos of her husband’s and daughter’s remains without any legitimate purpose, including her fear and anxiety that the photos will surface and go viral online," said a summary of her testimony submitted by her attorney. "Mrs. Bryant is further expected to testify regarding the ways in which she is routinely confronted with reminders of Defendants’ conduct and the prospect that photos will one day surface."

The county wants the court to issue an order preventing her from testifying about photos and communications that cannot be traced to the county.

It says Bryant will testify that she has never seen crash-site photos depicting the remains of her deceased relatives that she can trace to the county and has no evidence that crash-site photos depicting her deceased relatives were publicly disseminated by the county defendants.

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kobe Bryant's widow Vanessa reveals witness list for trial over photos