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Vanessa Bryant lawsuit a 'no-win' situation for LA County trying to put up defense

·7 min read
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  • Kobe Bryant
    Kobe Bryant
    American basketball player (1978-2020)

In the heavyweight legal fight between Vanessa Bryant and Los Angeles County, the court of public opinion already has decided who it likes and who it doesn’t, regardless of the facts or the law.

On one side of the case is the widow of Kobe Bryant, the NBA legend who died with their daughter in a helicopter crash last year near Los Angeles.

On the other side is the county – a large government bureaucracy whose employees improperly shared photos of their dead bodies from the crash scene, according to her lawsuit.

Guess which side has won more sympathy and support.

It’s not even close. And that’s understandable to some extent. But this dynamic also has become a big problem for the county defendants as they try to shield another kind of public support from Vanessa Bryant’s lawsuit – taxpayer money. She is seeking damages from the county that could run into the millions of dollars.

Vanessa Bryant at Kobe's memorial in 2020.
Vanessa Bryant at Kobe's memorial in 2020.

“We have great sympathy for Ms. Bryant and her family, but we don’t think her lawsuit has merit,” the county’s outside counsel, Skip Miller, said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports. “As long as she continues to litigate, we are duty-bound to defend the County and protect taxpayer dollars.”

On the surface, her civil case against the county might seem like a classic conflict between an endearing victim and a big powerful villain. But it is much more complicated than that. It also has led attorneys for the county to walk a tightrope of sorts as the case heads to trial in February. They have taken pains to express sympathy to her publicly while also fighting back at her in court by criticizing her claims, seeking access to her private therapy records and even trying to force her to undergo a psychiatric exam.

“I’m shocked they haven’t found a way to settle it, because there really is no good outcome for L.A. County,” said Alfonso Estrada, a labor attorney with the firm Hanson Bridgett who is not involved in the case but has been following it. “If they go to trial and win, it’s not even a win really, because they will be perceived in the public as having kind of beat up on Vanessa Bryant. If they go to trial and they lose, I still see that as the whole thing having blown up in their face and likely having to pay a pretty penny for a jury verdict or whatever they come out on. I see it as a no-win for the county.”

'In a tough spot’

In two similar lawsuits over crash-scene photos, families who lost loved ones in the same crash agreed to accept $1.25 million each from the county to settle their claims. Bryant has not appeared willing to settle so far, however, leaving the county no choice but to keep battling her attorneys in court.

The county recently asked a federal judge to throw her lawsuit out of court in summary judgment before trial – a decision that could come as soon as this month. Even so, Miller noted to USA TODAY Sports that while the county has an obligation to defend itself, “we are also 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.”

But Bryant might not be motivated by money. She is suing the county for invasion of privacy and negligence, accusing county sheriff’s and fire department employees of taking and sharing photos of her dead husband and daughter without having a professional reason for doing so. She said she is seeking accountability after images of husband's and daughter's remains "were taken and shared for the perverse gratification of law enforcement officers."

In response, the county defendants have noted that some employees were disciplined internally over their handling of crash-scene photos, including a sheriff’s deputy who showed them to a friend at a bar three days after the crash. Beyond that, they have said the photos were deleted, not posted online and that there wasn’t any “public dissemination” of these photos under the required legal standard for a case like this.

Yet almost every time they try to counter her in court with these and other arguments, the county defendants risk appearing to be cold and insensitive against a plaintiff who has uncommon leverage as a sympathetic public figure.

“The county has done as good of a job as they can do with folding in kind of compassionate statements when there are developments in the case, but it’s just such a tough subject matter,” said Estrada, a former prosecutor in Los Angeles. “You can really be polite and be as empathetic as possible, but at the end of the day, they’re just kind of in a tough spot on this.”

It boils down to this: Should the county defendants risk looking like callous creeps by putting up a good-faith defense against this famous widow? Or should they just give her whatever she wants even though they believe the facts don’t support her case?

Disgust and dismay

The situation became especially delicate when the county sought access to her private therapy records and tried to force her to undergo a psychiatric evaluation as part of the pretrial discovery process. Her attorneys portrayed this as a further invasion of privacy, calling it abusive and harassing.

“It appears to be an attempt by a public entity to intimidate (Bryant) into abandoning her pursuit of accountability for wrongdoing committed by County employees,” they stated in court documents.

BRYANT DEPOSITION: Vanessa Bryant recounts the day her husband and daughter died

Sports commentators also blasted the county under headlines that said county lawyers were making Bryant “suffer” and that “L.A. County wants to put Vanessa Bryant through hell ... again.”

Social media users reacted predictably, with many expressing disgust and dismay at the county.

But a magistrate judge agreed with the county and issued an order for her and her therapist to turn over to the county nearly five years of her private therapy records.

“The requests are plainly relevant to the claims and defenses herein,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles Eick wrote in his ruling.

The same judge denied the county’s request to force Bryant to undergo a psychiatric exam, stating that the request came too late in the process, not that it was inappropriate.

In court filings, the county said it had a standard legal reason for asking for these things – because Bryant put her mental health at issue in the case by filing a lawsuit over it. She claims to have suffered emotional distress after learning about the photos and is trying to recover damages as a result.

Her therapy records or a psychiatric exam therefore could show whether her emotional distress stems from this or something else that wasn’t the county’s fault, such as the crash itself and the loss of her loved ones.

“I would make that same argument, were I defending a public entity in a similar type of lawsuit,” Estrada said. “It’s just that this one is so out of the norm because it involves Vanessa Bryant and the death of Kobe and Gianna.”

The county’s tightrope walk also became difficult during Bryant’s testimony in a pretrial deposition in October.

'I’m not enjoying watching you upset’

In that deposition, Miller was questioning Bryant under oath about the day of the crash in January 2020. She got emotional, leading Miller to remind her he was just doing his job defending the county and that she was the one who triggered these proceedings by suing the county, not the other way around.

“I'm not enjoying watching you upset, you know,” Miller told her, according to a transcript. “And if you want to take a break, take a break. Compose yourself. You can do whatever you want. This is not an endurance test. It's not harassment. It's just a lawsuit. And I'm so sorry to put you through this, but like I said at the beginning, I've got to do my job.”

“I shouldn't have to be going through this,” Bryant replied. “It's not just a lawsuit.”

“I agree,” Miller told her. “But you filed the lawsuit.”

Bryant’s attorney, Luis Li, then interjected with an objection and said, “I don't think you need to argue with the witness. If you want to ask a question, go ahead.”

“I don't want to argue with this lady at all,” Miller replied. “Believe me, I wish I wasn't here almost as much as she wishes she wasn't here. I don't enjoy watching this at all. This is painful.”

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

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kobe Bryant's widow has Los Angeles County in tough defense position