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A federal judge in Los Angeles delivered a clear message in February for Vanessa Bryant and her legal adversaries in Los Angeles County.
The judge wanted them to settle their dispute out of court and ordered them to participate in mediation talks by April 11.
Both sides complied with the order. But they failed to reach a resolution, keeping the case on track for trial in late July, according to court records obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
Bryant, the widow of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, sued the county in September 2020, accusing county sheriff’s and fire department employees of improperly taking and sharing photos of her deceased husband and daughter after they were killed in a helicopter crash in January 2020.
“The parties engaged in a thorough analysis of the cases prior to the mediation and were prepared to and did discuss all economic and non-economic factors relevant to settling the cases,” the parties said in a joint statement filed in court. “The parties were unable to reach a resolution at the mediation. The mediator is continuing to work with the parties to see if a resolution can be reached.”
The county says her lawsuit is without merit but still has shown a willingness to settle with Bryant. It even settled with two other families who lost loved ones in the same crash that killed all nine aboard. Last year, it agreed to pay those families $1.25 million each to end their own similar lawsuits over photos of human remains from the crash scene.
But Bryant so far has refused to settle in her quest for accountability after she said the county defendants invaded her privacy with their conduct. In her lawsuit, she said she seeks damages in an amount to be proven at trial, as well as punitive damages to punish the deputy defendants “and make an example of them to the community.”
In February, U.S. District Judge John F. Walter tried to get a better sense of what she wants out of this lawsuit. Her attorney, Luis Li, said it was about accountability.
Walter then tried to steer it away from trial.
“I really urge counsel to seriously consider settling this case,” Walter told Bryant’s attorney, Luis Li. “I understand it's a – it's a difficult case to settle, but as we discussed, unfortunately there's nothing that the jury can do or this Court can do to satisfy Mrs. Bryant's issue with respect to accountability. And it comes down to money.”
Money might not matter to her as much as “making an example” of the defendants, including a sheriff’s deputy who showed graphic crash-scene photos on his phone at a bar two days after the accident. The deputy was suspended for his conduct. Fire department employees also were disciplined for misusing crash-scene photos.
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva testified in a pretrial deposition that an internal inquiry revealed the crash-scene images went to “28 devices” among sheriff’s department personnel. But the county says the photos were not posted online and were deleted after Villanueva tried to contain the situation.
Bryant's lawsuit over photos is separate from a wrongful death lawsuit that Bryant and other families settled last year with the company that operated the doomed helicopter.
The photos case is one of two that remain pending against the county, including Bryant’s. Chris Chester, who lost his wife and daughter in the same crash, also is suing the county for negligence and invasion of privacy.
Li, Bryant's attorney, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. The county’s outside counsel, Skip Miller, issued a statement Tuesday when asked about the settlement talks.
“With respect to settlement, we’ve settled with two other families and have tried with Vanessa Bryant,” said Miller of the firm Miller Barondess. “We grieve along with her and the other families. But the County did not cause the crash. The County had nothing to do with their horrific loss. The County’s emergency personnel did their job responding to the tragedy and none of the photos documenting the crash site were ever publicly disseminated.”
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kobe Bryant's widow, LA county unable to reach resolution over lawsuit