Victims’ Family Sues Over Phototaking At Kobe Bryant Helicopter Crash

The family of a woman killed in the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash last January, has filed suit against Los Angeles County accusing deputy sheriffs and firefighters of taking photos of victims’ remains and disseminating those images to others unrelated to any investigation. Sarah Chester and her 13-year-old daughter, Payton, perished on January 26, 2020 when their helicopter crashed into the Santa Monica mountains.

Sarah’s husband Christopher Chester, along with their sons, Riley and Chester, filed suit naming Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Sheriff Alex Villanueva, the Los Angeles County Fire Department, and 100 John Doe defendants. The suit was filed yesterday in US District Court for the Central District of California.

The complaint alleges that the Sheriff “had both the authority and the duty to secure the accident scene. Securing the crash scene was essential to protecting the dignity of those who had perished and limiting the mental and emotional suffering of the loved ones left behind.” The complaint further claims Villanueva owed a special duty to the Chesters because “On the afternoon of the crash, Defendant Villanueva met personally with Plaintiff Christopher L. Chester at the Lost Hills Sheriff Station and assured him that every possible measure would be taken to preserve and protect the scene of the crash.”

The Chesters are claiming a violation of their Fourteenth Amendment rights under 42 USC §1983, negligence, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Quoting from the complaint:

  • Defendant LOS ANGELES COUNTY FIRE DEPARTMENT had both the authority and the duty to suppress and eliminate the risks of fire and explosion created by the crash.
  • Defendant Villanueva failed to meet his special duty.
  • He entrusted the security of the accident scene to deputies who quickly turned into paparazzi.
  • The assigned deputies were so inadequately trained and supervised that they freely took numerous cell phone photos of the remains and personal effects of Sarah and Payton.
  • Defendant Villanueva, himself, has admitted that there was no legitimate reason for his deputies to take these photos.
  • The deputies took them for their own dark excitement, morbid interest, and depraved enjoyment.
  • In so doing, Defendant Villanueva’s deputies exploited and violated the decedents and destroyed the minimal peace of mind which the Chester Plaintiffs were struggling to preserve.
  • The abhorrent conduct of Defendant Villanueva’s deputies was not confined to the accident scene.
  • The graphic images were displayed, shared and discussed within the Sheriff s Department in circumstances that were completely unrelated to any investigation of the accident.
  • When he learned that his deputies had violated the Chester Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to control images of Sarah’s and Payton’s remains, Defendant Villanueva responded by instructing his deputies to destroy the evidence of their wrongful conduct.
  • Defendant Villanueva assured the offending deputies that they would face no disciplinary action if they deleted and destroyed the photographs.
  • Relying on the Sheriff’s assurances, the offending deputies purportedly deleted and destroyed each of the photographs.
  • Defendants Villanueva, Does 1 through 100, inclusive, and each of them, deliberately engaged in spoliation of evidence.
  • The Chester Plaintiffs are informed and believe that various members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department also photographed the remains of Sarah and Payton at the scene of the crash.
  • Further, these same firefighters shared, distributed and showed the photographs of the decedents in circumstances that were unrelated to any investigation of the crash.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

The issues raised in this case cut across two important subject matter areas. The first has to do with photo-taking by on-duty personnel. Our January 6, 2021 webinar, Drafting and Implementing an Effective Digital Imagery Policy is right on point, looking at the cases and legal issues that need to be considered when crafting a realistic solution to address the photo-taking problem. The program covers the spoliation issues raised by a case like this, as well as one that was not mentioned: public records concerns. Then there’s the need to support the policy through training. Cases like this make for GREAT case studies!

The second is Managing Disciplinary Challenges in the Fire Service. The sixteen-hour program addresses the way a fire department should respond to allegations of misconduct, and best practices for conducting a fair but thorough investigation. Included is a discussion of the role spoliation can play in disciplinary investigations and civil suits against fire departments. The next session is January 19-21, 2021.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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