Los Angeles County is set to pay two families $1.25 million each after they accused county first responders of improperly sharing photos of their dead relatives from a helicopter crash last year that also killed NBA legend Kobe Bryant, according to the proposed settlement terms posted by the county Wednesday night.
County representatives recently reached these pending terms with the Altobelli and Mauser families after they had sued the county for invasion of privacy and negligence. Their lawsuits were similar to two others that remain ongoing and headed to trial in February – one filed by Bryant’s widow Vanessa and one filed by Chris Chester, the husband and father of two other crash victims.
The proposed settlements are subject to final approval by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, which is expected next week.
“We believe these proposed settlements of $1.25 million are reasonable and fair to all concerned,” said a statement from Skip Miller, outside counsel for the county and partner of the Miller Barondess law firm. “We are pleased that the Mauser and Altobelli families, who as private citizens suffered the same grief and loss as others, will be able to move forward after these settlements. … We also hope that eventually the other families will be able to do the same.”
The Altobelli and Mauser plaintiffs had sought to recover damages for the emotional distress they said they suffered after learning of “outrageous” conduct by county sheriff’s and fire department employees. In their lawsuits, they said those employees had improperly taken and shared photos of human remains from the crash scene in January 2020, including those of their family members.
The county’s fees and costs in these two cases has run to about $1.3 million, according to a letter to the county board of supervisors from County Counsel Rodrigo Castro-Silva. Payment of such fees and costs will be divided between the county sheriff’s and fire department’s existing budgets, according to the letter. Castro-Silva recommended that the board approve the settlements and instruct the L.A. County Auditor-Controller to draw warrants to implement them from the sheriff’s and fire department budgets.
“Given the risks and uncertainties of litigation, as well as the tragic accident giving rise to the lawsuits, fair and reasonable settlements at this time will avoid further litigation costs,” Castro-Silva wrote in his letter to the board. “Therefore, full and final settlements of the two cases are warranted.”
In its defense in the Bryant case, the county has said the photos were not posted on the internet or “publicly disseminated” beyond that of an isolated incident or two at a bar and a banquet.
But even as the county has settled to end these two cases, its legal battle with Vanessa Bryant recently has escalated.
In a ruling Tuesday, she won a court order to compel the pretrial deposition testimony of L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and Fire Chief Daryl Osby. Her legal team at Munger Tolles & Olson LLP wants to know more about what they did and knew about the photos, including destruction of evidence related to it.
Earlier this month, Bryant testified in her own deposition and said she was seeking “accountability” for how these images of husband and daughter were shared “as if they were animals on a street.”
“Are you seeking money in this lawsuit, yes or no?” asked Miller, the attorney defending the county.
“That would be up to the jury,” Bryant replied, according to the transcript obtained by USA TODAY Sports. “I don’t – I’m not asking for a dollar amount.”
College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife Keri and daughter Alyssa were among nine who died in the crash, including the pilot, Bryant, Bryant’s daughter Gigi, basketball coach Christina Mauser, Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton. The families were headed to a youth basketball tournament that day before foggy conditions led to the crash near Los Angeles.
Surviving members of the Bryant, Altobelli, Mauser and Chester families then filed two separate sets of civil lawsuits – one alleging wrongful death against Island Express, the owner and operator of the doomed helicopter, and another against the county over the photos of human remains from the crash site.
Earlier this year, the families reached a confidential settlement in the Island Express case.
In the photos matter, the fire department notified at least two employees they were going to be fired over what they did. The department told one of them in a letter that his photographs from the crash scene had “no legitimate business purpose” and “only served to appeal to baser instincts and desires for what amounted to visual gossip,” according to court records obtained by USA TODAY Sports. The department intended to terminate the employee over it before he retired early, citing his mental health.
That former employee, Brian Jordan, said he was obeying orders and being made into a scapegoat for the county’s own shortcoming, according court documents.
In the Altobelli and Mauser photo lawsuits, the families were represented by the firm of Panish Shea Boyle Ravipudi LLP. That firm also recently helped win a settlement of up to $1.8 billion against Southern California Gas Co. and its parent company, Sempra Energy, to compensate thousands of plaintiffs from the 2015 Aliso Canyon natural gas blowout and leak near Los Angeles.