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Los Angeles County seeks summary judgment against widow of Kobe Bryant in lawsuit

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Los Angeles County has filed a motion for summary judgment against the widow of Kobe Bryant, arguing that she never saw photos of her dead husband and daughter and that she has no standing to sue the county over photos that were deleted and never shared with the public at large.

In a 32-page document filed Monday, the county gave these and other reasons for a federal judge to dismiss her lawsuit against the county before trial.

Vanessa Bryant is suing the county for invasion of privacy and negligence in a case that accuses county sheriff’s and fire department employees of improperly sharing photos of human remains from a helicopter crash last year that killed nine, including the NBA legend and their daughter.

If a judge grants the county’s motion, her lawsuit will be over, pending any appeal. If she survives it, her case will proceed to trial in February.

THE LATEST: New details of crash-scene photos emerge in Vanessa Bryant's lawsuit

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.

“It is undisputed that the complained-of photos have never been in the media, on the Internet, or otherwise publicly disseminated,” said the filing submitted by the county Monday. “Instead, (Bryant) testified that this case is about her 'having to fear those photographs surfacing.' But a preemptive, speculative lawsuit about what `'may’ or 'could’ happen, as (Bryant) testified, fails as a matter of law.”

By filing for a motion for summary judgment, the county is making the case that the undisputed facts in the lawsuit show that her claims aren’t valid according to the law and that her lawsuit should be dismissed by a judge.

Bryant "paints a nefarious picture, but the facts do not support it," the county's filing stated.

Bryant’s attorneys are expected to dispute the county’s motion next month with their own written rebuttal. Her lawsuit states that the “images of her husband’s and daughter’s remains were taken and shared for the perverse gratification of law enforcement officers” who had no professional reason for sharing such photos.

Her attorneys previously filed documents that detail the sharing of crash-site photos between sheriff’s department employees, as well as an incident in which a sheriff’s deputy showed such photos to a bartender in Norwalk, California. The deputy who showed photos at the bar, Joey Cruz, was suspended 10 days after a concerned citizen sent a complaint about it to the sheriff’s department.

Cruz also sent photos to another deputy defendant, Michael Russell, who testified in a pretrial deposition that he asked for them because he was “curious.”

He testified that the unspecified remains in one photo “could have possibly belonged to Kobe Bryant.”

“I’m looking at grotesque, graphic bodies and going, 'Oh my God,” Russell testified, according to a transcript of his deposition.

Three fire department employees also were disciplined over the photos, including fire captain Tony Imbrenda, who showed photos on his phone to other county fire employees at an awards show event.

“Plaintiff’s claim for invasion of privacy is based on Deputy Cruz showing between one and three photos on his phone to one person—a friend—and trying to show them to his niece, who refused to look at them,” the county stated in its motion. “The photos were on Deputy Cruz’s phone, and the phone never left his hand. Only one person saw the photos on Deputy Cruz’s phone. Because the photos were not shown to 'the public at large’ and their content is not 'of public knowledge,’ the `public disclosure’ element for invasion of privacy has not been met.”

On Sunday, the county also filed a similar motion for summary judgment against Chris Chester, who lost his wife and daughter in the same crash and then filed a similar lawsuit against the county over the photos.

Two other plaintiff families who lost loved ones in the crash recently each agreed to accept a $1.25 million settlement from the county to end their own lawsuits over the photos.

The judge’s ruling on the summary judgment motion against Bryant could come as soon as next month.

“If the judge does grant summary judgment, she would essentially be out of luck, absent an appeal to the Ninth Circuit,” said Alfonso Estrada, a labor attorney and former prosecutor in Los Angeles who has been following the case but is not involved in it. “On the flip side, if she survives summary judgment, then the price tag goes way up for the county as far as any potential resolution or settlement.”

Bryant’s lawsuit names four individual sheriff’s deputies as defendants in the suit, including Cruz and Russell.

The county noted that the sheriff’s department “felt its policies were violated and disciplined its personnel accordingly, but that does not mean the Deputy Defendants violated the law and breached a duty they owed to Plaintiff, a private citizen who they never met.”

Bryant is seeking compensatory and punitive damages to punish the deputy defendants and “make an example of them to the community.”

The county stated only Cruz had shown a photo to anyone outside the sheriff’s department. They otherwise were shared internally.

“A court should not get involved in internal municipal employment matters like deciding when crash site photos can be shared internally and when they cannot,” the county stated in its motion.

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

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kobe Bryant's widow faces motion for summary judgment by LA County