Vanessa Bryant Files Legal Claim Surrounding Release of Graphic Photos of Kobe's Helicopter Crash Scene
Vanessa Bryant filed a legal claim on Friday in regard to a collection of unauthorized photographs taken by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officials that show the aftermath of the Jan. 26 helicopter crash that killed her husband, NBA legend Kobe Bryant, their 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others.
The claim, exclusively obtained by PEOPLE, seeks damages for emotional distress and mental anguish following the revelation that eight L.A. County Sheriff’s Department deputies took graphic photographs of the victims and shared them with unauthorized people. This happened despite Vanessa personally speaking to Sheriff Alex Villanueva on the morning of the crash to request the site be secured for privacy.
"In reality, however, no fewer than eight sheriff’s deputies were at the scene snapping cell-phone photos of the dead children, parents, and coaches," the document asserts. "As the Department would later admit, there was no investigative purpose for deputies to take pictures at the crash site. Rather, the deputies took photos for their own personal purposes."
Only the county coroner’s office and investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board were permitted to photograph the scene, Villanueva confirmed to reporters at the time.
"That is the only two groups of people," Villanueva said in March. "Anybody outside of that would be unauthorized. They’d be illicit photos."
At least two L.A. firefighters allegedly took photographs as well and were told to delete them.
Friday's filing says the "department’s mishandling of this egregious misconduct" only worsened Vanessa's "emotional distress." She would first learn of the photo scandal through various news outlets after February 28, almost a month after Vanessa's legal team says the department became aware of the photos’ existence.
"This [filing] solely is about enforcing accountability, protecting the victims and making sure no one ever has to deal with this conduct in the future," a spokesperson for the Bryant family exclusively tells PEOPLE in a statement.
"When a family suffers the loss of loved ones, they have the right to expect that they will be treated with dignity and respect," the family spokesperson adds. "The Deputies in this case betrayed that sacred trust. This claim is intended to hold the Sheriff’s Department accountable and to prevent future misconduct."
"Rather than formally investigate the allegations to identify the extent of dissemination and contain the spread of the photos, Department leadership reportedly told deputies that they would face no discipline if they just deleted the photos," the claim says.
“Mrs. Bryant was distressed to learn that the Department did not initiate a formal investigation until after the L.A. Times broke the story on or about February 28, and that the Department had taken few if any steps to contain the spread of the photos,” the filing continues.
During a March appearance on NBC’s Today show, Villanueva said he was initially alerted to the photographs when a deputy trainee was allegedly caught sharing the graphic images to someone at a bar. A witness who overheard the trainee's conversation notified the department through an online complaint.
The claim says Vanessa's attorneys requested information about the department's investigation, including the identities of the deputies involved and the steps the department implemented to find those who had taken the photos and anyone else who may have viewed or obtained them. In response, the department allegedly said it was "unable to assist" with the request.
The lingering threat of the photos becoming public has "compounded" Vanessa's grief, the claim says.
"Mrs. Bryant has suffered an immense tragedy by losing her husband and daughter; her grief has been compounded by the severe emotional distress caused by the sheriff’s deputies’ misconduct and the Sheriff’s Department’s mishandling of that misconduct," it says.
According to the claim, Vanessa has learned of people who have allegedly seen the photographs online.
"Mrs. Bryant is deeply worried that all copies of the sheriff’s deputies’ photos have not been accounted for, and that it is only a matter of time before she or her daughters encounter them on the Internet," the claims says.
"Upon information or belief, sheriff’s deputies shared photos of victims’ remains with individuals unaffiliated with the investigation for their own excitement and sense of self- importance, including one instance where a deputy shared photos to impress a woman at a bar," the filing continues.
"The sheriff’s deputies who took and shared the photos are thus liable for negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and invasion of Mrs. Bryant’s right to privacy in the death images of her loved ones," Vanessa's legal team says.
Along with Kobe and Gianna, the crash also claimed the lives of 13-year-old Payton Chester, Sarah Chester, 46, 14-year-old Alyssa Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, 46, John Altobelli, 56, Christina Mauser, 38, and the helicopter's pilot Ara Zobayan, 50.
After news of the unauthorized images came to light in late February, Vanessa and her legal team quickly condemned the actions of the deputies and firefighters involved.
“Mrs. Bryant personally went to the Sheriff’s office on January 26th and requested that the area be designated a no-fly zone and protected from photographers,” Vanessa's lawyer, Gary C. Robb, said in a statement at the time.
“This was of critical importance to her as she desired to protect the dignity of all the victims, and their families," he continued. "At that time, Sheriff Alex Villanueva assured us all measures would be put in place to protect the families’ privacy, and it is our understanding that he has worked hard to honor those requests.”
The statement called the behavior of those involved "inexcusable and deplorable," and expressed gratitude for the individual who filed the online complaint that exposed "these acts of injustice."
As noted in Friday's claim, a bill proposed before the California Legislature on Monday would make it a crime for first responders to take and share photos of bodies at a crime scene, according to KCBS. If passed, anyone found to have taken unauthorized photos could face a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
The bill, titled “Invasion of Privacy: First Responders,” is in direct response to the Sheriff's Department photo scandal.
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