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Two days after Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash, Joey Cruz, a deputy trainee at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, was spotted at a Norwalk bar showing off gruesome photos of the crash site.
Cruz, who was not at the scene of the accident, had no legitimate reason for possessing the photos. He was one of at least 28 sheriff’s personnel and a dozen firefighters the photos were passed along to before they were quietly ordered to scrub them off of their phones in what Vanessa Bryant’s lawyer has called a “mass-deletion campaign” that was allegedly part of a cover up scheme.
Los Angeles County has insisted it properly addressed the circulation of the grisly photos because the families of the victims never saw them and they were never released on the internet. It’s maintained that there’s no liability since there was never any “public dissemination” of the images.
A jury will consider the competing narratives in a trial before U.S. District Judge Jon F. Walter set to start on Feb. 22.
Bryant brought the lawsuit, which seeks punitive damages, after Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies and firefighters shared photos of the scene where her husband and daughter, along with seven others, died in January 2020. She claims a violation of her constitutional right to control the death images of her husband, negligence and invasion of privacy.
Los Angeles County, represented by outside attorney Skip Miller of Miller Barondess, centers its defense on the fact that the photos were never seen by the public. It’s moved to split the trial into two phases, the first of which the jury will decide whether the images were publicly disseminated. If they decide that they weren’t, the trial will be end before turning to liability and damages.
“Despite the multitude of defendants and claims, the key issue at trial is this: Was there public dissemination of County (LASD or LACFD) photos depicting the human remains of Plaintiff’s deceased family members?” reads a court document filed on Thursday by the county previewing key arguments of the case. “The evidence at trial will establish that the answer to this question is no. Plaintiff will be unable to answer this threshold question in the affirmative, which undermines all of his claims.”
The county argues that only one sheriff’s department staffer was able to reach the crash site and that photos had to be shared with others in order to communicate what was happening on the scene and share information with others working on the investigation. The photos were then deleted, eliminating the possibility that families of those who died will stumble upon them on the internet.
Miller has maintained throughout the case that the lawsuit should be dismissed because it advanced a hypothetical injury, which may not occur. He claims, “The mere risk of future harm is not concrete harm.”
Bryant, in turn, alleges that the full scale of how many personnel at the sheriff’s and fire departments received the photos may never be uncovered because they were told to delete them, which she argues amounts to destruction of evidence. Despite the county’s efforts to “destroy the forensic record and cover up the truth,” she argues that she evidence that “shows the illicit photos spread quickly and widely, and that many copies of the photos remain unsecured, uncontained, and at risk of going viral with the click of a mouse.”
Bryant cites testimony and prior admissions by employees of the departments that they routinely use personal cell phones to photograph similar graphic images of accidents as evidence that the county was deliberately indifferent to the inadequacy of its policies to prevent such misconduct.
Luis Li, a partner at Wilson Sonsini representing Bryant, writes in a court document filed on Thursday: “Defendant Joey Cruz intentionally wiped all of the data from his phone and nine LASD personnel known to have possessed the photos disposed of their phones before they could be forensically examined. This rampant and widespread destruction of evidence—on top of at least 68 false exculpatory statements by County personnel—shows a consciousness of wrongdoing and a failure to implement appropriate policies to protect Plaintiff’s constitutional rights.”
The county has challenged the allegation that it fails to properly train its employees, pointing to the implementation of procedures after it was revealed that photos of Kobe were shared detailing when it’s appropriate to photograph scenes where human remains are present. It also claims that “this incident was the first time LASD had confronted allegations that an employee shared photos internally containing victims’ remains.”
Among the other defenses that the county cites is that it undertook all of the alleged acts in good faith, that the damages were caused by superseding acts and qualified immunity, which protects government officials accused of violating constitutional rights.
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