LOS ANGELES - Jury selection began Wednesday for the trial of Vanessa Bryant's lawsuit against the Los Angeles County sheriff’s and fire departments over the leak of graphic photos taken by first responders at the scene of the fatal helicopter crash that killed her husband, Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, their 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others.
The trial happening in downtown Los Angeles was consolidated with the lawsuit of Orange County financial adviser Chris Chester, whose wife, Sarah, and their 13-year-oid daughter, Payton, were among the nine victims.
The group was flying to a girls' basketball tournament at what was then called The Mamba Academy when their chartered helicopter crashed in the Santa Monica Mountains in Calabasas on what was a foggy morning in Los Angeles with low clods. Federal investigators concluded the veteran pilot, Ara Zobayan, had spatial disorientation.
U.S. District Judge John Walter said he would impanel 10 jurors, which would include an extra four panelists in case there are any dropouts for medical or other reasons.
A list of prospective witnesses includes Vanessa Bryant and L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who allegedly promised the widow that the crash site was "secure" and nobody would ever see photos taken of her husband's and daughter's remains. The sheriff testified in a deposition that he directed deputies to get rid of any crash scene photos they had on their phones, as part of his promise.
The plaintiffs allege that responding county personnel took graphic close-up photos of human remains strewn across the Calabasas crash site on Jan. 26, 2020, then shared those photos within and beyond their departments.
"Mrs. Bryant feels ill at the thought that sheriff’s deputies, firefighters, and members of the public have gawked at gratuitous images of her deceased husband and child," according to the lawsuit. "She lives in fear that she or her children will one day confront horrific images of their loved ones online."
The county has argued that Bryant has suffered emotional distress from the deaths, not the photos, which were ordered deleted by Villanueva. They said the photos have never been in the media, on the internet or otherwise publicly disseminated and that the lawsuit is speculative about harm she may suffer.
Vanessa Bryant sued the county in September 2020, followed by Chester's filing two months later.
The county asserts that it will be proven to the jury that no photos taken by personnel at the scene of the hillside crash were ever shared with the public.
A law prompted by the crash makes it a crime for first responders to take unauthorized photos of deceased people at the scene of an accident or crime.
The county already agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle a similar case brought by two families whose relatives died in the Jan. 26, 2020, crash.
Vanessa Bryant did not settle her case, indicating she’s seeking more.
When the county sought a psychiatric evaluation of Bryant to determine if she suffered emotional distress because of the photos, her lawyers criticized the "scorched-earth discovery tactics" to bully her and other family members of victims to abandon their lawsuits.
The county responded by saying they were sympathetic to Bryant’s losses and dismissed her case as a "money grab."
City News Service and The Associated Press contributed to this report.