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Question looms over Vanessa Bryant lawsuit against Los Angeles County: What does she want?

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The widow of Kobe Bryant wants retribution for what happened last year after her husband and daughter died in a helicopter crash.

But what kind of retribution? And how much?

Vanessa Bryant is suing Los Angeles County, accusing county sheriff’s and fire department employees of improperly sharing photos of dead bodies from the site of the crash that killed nine, including the NBA legend. As the case heads to trial in February, perhaps the biggest question hovering above it is what her goal is for it.

Is it for money, or something else?

"Mrs. Bryant is seeking the truth,” her attorney, Luis Li, said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports. “She is seeking to have the wrongdoers answer for what they did, and she is seeking to protect other survivors from enduring this same pain in the future.”

Bryant herself was asked the same question in a pretrial deposition last month by an attorney for the county defendants. The county has expressed sympathy for her but disputes her claims and is attempting to have her lawsuit thrown out of court before trial.

"What are you seeking?" asked Skip Miller, the county’s outside counsel. "What recovery are you seeking from the lawsuit?

"I want accountability," she testified, according to the transcript.

That could mean different things, including a protracted trial that attempts to shame the defendants.

Vanessa Bryant speaks at the 2021 Basketball Hall of Fame ceremony.
Vanessa Bryant speaks at the 2021 Basketball Hall of Fame ceremony.

Miller previously has called Bryant’s case a “money grab.” On paper, her lawsuit is seeking damages to remedy her emotional distress and invasion of privacy. It states her distress comes from “the knowledge that images of her husband’s and daughter’s remains were taken and shared for the perverse gratification of law enforcement officers.”

But it’s not just about money, if she wants money at all, unlike plaintiffs in other civil cases. That’s because this is no ordinary plaintiff. Not only is she already wealthy, but she has uncommon leverage as an extraordinarily sympathetic public figure.

"Vanessa Bryant is viewed as like the First Lady of Los Angeles," said Alfonso Estrada, a labor attorney and former prosecutor in Los Angeles who has been following the case but is not involved in it.

His sense of her objective here is the "idea of her feeling scorned and kind of willing to do anything and everything that she can to get some kind of recognition that her family was wronged."

A look at how she’s pursued this case so far also might show where she wants it to go:

She has tried to turn over every rock

In a document filed in court Nov. 8, the county detailed the lengths to which Bryant’s attorneys have gone to gather pretrial discovery evidence.

►They were on pace to have taken testimony from about 40 depositions by the end of November, including a four-hour sitting with L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva on Nov. 10.

►Over 35,000 pages of documents have been turned over by the county defendants, as well as surveillance video from a bar in Norwalk, California, where a sheriff’s deputy showed crash-site photos to a bartender.

►Her legal team served over 100 written discovery requests on the county defendants and served subpoenas on four wireless phone providers for records in early 2020 – AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Spectrum.

►The county defendants also turned over 29 devices Bryant wanted to be examined by an independent forensic firm.

The county has described it all as “exhaustive” and said the evidence “confirmed that there are no photos and no public dissemination.”

The county’s position is that no photos were posted online, some employees have been disciplined for their handling of these photos and that there wasn’t any “public dissemination” of these photos under the standard required by law.

"We don’t know what Ms. Bryant wants from this lawsuit," said a statement from Miller, partner at the Miller Barondess law firm. "From the day of the crash, the County has done everything possible to accommodate her. At her request, it imposed a no-fly zone over the crash site and took steps to make sure that none of the crash site photos were ever publicly disseminated. In addition, the County has also adopted new guidelines restricting access to future crash site photos and supported a law that does the same for other California law enforcement agencies."

Bryant’s attorneys said the county defendants covered up their wrongdoing by deleting the photos and have detailed evidence in court records of county employees sharing photos from the crash with no professional reason for doing so.

She wants to 'punish’ the defendants

It says so in her complaint, originally filed in September 2020. She is seeking punitive damages against the deputy defendants in an amount appropriate to punish them and "make an example of them to the community.”

She fought to have four of their names made public in the lawsuit — Raul Versales, Michael Russell, Rafael Mejia and Joey Cruz, the one who showed the photos at the bar, prompting the citizen’s complaint that led to this controversy.

After the judge allowed the names to be made public, she used her widely followed Instagram account to publicize them in March, showing a photo of her lawsuit with a red square drawn around them.

"Why did you decide in particular to put … this public document on your Instagram account?" Miller asked her in her deposition last month.

"I had been requesting this information for quite some time, and I want accountability," she testified.

"You've been requesting what information?" Miller asked.

"The names of everyone in this square," Bryant replied.

"OK. And now you got it," Miller said. "And so you decided to post their names on your Instagram account to hold them accountable for something?"

"I just wanted transparency," she said.

After their names were posted by Bryant, the county said that the sheriff’s deputies were subjected to harassment.

Bryant testified she is "not asking for a dollar amount" as she presses her case against the county defendants.

"Are you seeking money in this lawsuit; yes or no?" Miller asked her.

"That would be up to the jury," she replied.

Would she accept a settlement before trial?

Two other families who lost loved ones in the crash filed similar lawsuits against the county over the photos. They recently agreed to accept $1.25 million each from the county to end those lawsuits.

Miller said in his statement to USA TODAY Sports that the county doesn’t believe Bryant's lawsuit has merit but also is “ready to recommend a settlement similar to what we offered other families so she can continue the healing process without reliving this tragedy in court.”

In the meantime, the case is nearing a trial that could attract a news media swarm with a celebrity plaintiff, celebrity witnesses and detailed evidence about what the defendants did or didn’t do with graphic photos showing human remains.

Is that what she wants?

Public trials by definition are about all the things she says she wants from this lawsuit – transparency, finding the truth and seeking accountability. She’s also driven by something else.

"It has become very personal for her," said Estrada, partner in the firm Hanson Bridgett.

It’s so personal that the true source of her suffering has become a point of dispute between her and the county. Is this about getting revenge for the loss of her loved ones, even though the county didn’t have anything to do with the crash itself? Or did she suffer additional emotional distress after learning about the photos being shared?

Bryant already sued the operator of the doomed helicopter in a wrongful death case and reached an undisclosed settlement this year. In August, county’s counsel said the county defendants think Bryant’s case over crash-scene photos “is trying to fill a void,” according to a court filing by one of Bryant’s attorneys.

Her lawsuit over the photos stated that the “outrageous actions” of the county sheriff’s and fire departments “compounded the trauma of losing Kobe and Gianna.”

But the county has argued that her emotional distress stems from their deaths and not from photos Bryant hasn’t seen and were deleted soon after the crash.

"Emotional distress, what does that mean to you?" Miller asked her during her deposition.

"Emotional distress means that not only do I have to grieve to the loss of my husband and child, but for the rest of my life I'm going to have to fear that these photographs of my husband and child will be leaked," Bryant testified. "And I do not want my little girls or I to ever have to see their remains in that matter. Nor do I think it's right that the photographs were taken in the first place because it's already tough enough that I have to experience this heartache and this loss. But now to live the rest of my life having to fear those photographs surfacing is something that I, I have to deal with every single day."

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

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kobe Bryant's widow is suing over body photos, but what does she want?