Smoke from helicopter crash
Smoke from the helicopter crash north of Malibu. Courtesy Los Angeles Sheriff

 A Los Angeles federal judge Tuesday combined Vanessa Bryant’s lawsuit over photos taken at the scene of the helicopter crash that killed her husband, Kobe Bryant, and their daughter, with a similar suit brought by an Orange County man who lost his wife and daughter in the accident.

U.S. District Judge John Walter consolidated the two cases against Los Angeles County for a single trial next month. Both the NBA star’s widow and Chris Chester contend they suffered emotional distress when county workers allegedly snapped and shared photos of the crash scene. Among the nine victims were Chester’s wife, Sarah, and 13-year-old daughter, Payton.

In court papers, Bryant had urged Walter to combine the two suits because “a single trial would promote efficiency, reduce costs for all involved, and reduce the risk of inconsistent verdicts.”

The county strongly opposed such a move, arguing that a single trial would prejudice and confuse the jury because evidence in one case would likely spill over into the other. The defendants also argued that allowing Bryant and Chester to present evidence of their emotional distress in a consolidated trial would “magnify and bolster” both plaintiffs’ damages.

“We are not surprised Judge Walter decided to try the Bryant and Chester cases together, but he confirmed that each plaintiff must meet their separate burden of proof at trial. And while plaintiffs want to argue there was a widespread custom and practice of improper sharing accident photos by first responders, the fact is there is no evidence of it and they won’t be able to prove it,” said Mira Hashmall, partner at the Miller Barondess law firm and lead counsel for LA County in the Vanessa Bryant litigation.

Walter scheduled trial for the second week of August, ruling that 10 jurors would be impaneled for the federal civil procedure in which a verdict must be unanimous and returned by at least six jurors.

The judge gave the parties nine days to try the case in the downtown federal courthouse.

During a pretrial hearing Tuesday, Walter also ruled to allow the county to call forensic psychiatrist Dr. Marc Cohen as a defense witness to explore Bryant’s claims of emotional distress over fears that the crash-site images — which have all allegedly been destroyed — would one day be publicly disclosed.

Hashmall said it was “significant that Judge Walter did not find the sheriff did anything wrong when he gave the order to delete the photos so that none of them would become public.”

Vanessa Bryant sued the county in September 2020, accusing sheriff and fire department workers of improperly taking and handling photos of human remains from the crash that killed the basketball legend and their 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. Chester filed his suit in November 2020.

The plaintiffs allege that responding personnel from the county sheriff’s and fire departments 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.

“At least 11 (sheriff’s) personnel and a dozen firefighters shared the photos within 24 hours of the crash,” Bryant’s attorneys wrote. “In the following weeks, one (sheriff’s) deputy flaunted photos of remains at a bar, another texted photos to a group of video game buddies, and (county fire) personnel displayed photos at an awards gala.”

County attorneys say it will be proven to a jury that no photos taken by personnel at the scene of the hillside crash were ever shared with the public.

The judge previously indicated that the trial would be broken up into two phases.

In the first phase, a federal cause of action in which plaintiffs allege that county personnel’s taking and dissemination of photos violated their constitutional rights to control the remains and death images of their deceased loved ones will be litigated. State law claims will be addressed in the second phase.

Updated at 2:30 p.m., Tuesday, July 26, 2022

City News Service contributed to this article.