Someone Explain The Kobe Bryant Photos Case To Me, Because I Don’t Understand It At All

It appears to be a triumph of “ick” over both law and ethics.

Kobe Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, was awarded $16 million as her part of a $31 million jury verdict Wednesday against Los Angeles County. Deputies and firefighters had shared gruesome photos of the NBA star; their 13-year-old daughter, Gianna; and other victims killed in a 2020 helicopter crash; the family of those other victims received the rest of $31 million. The nine jurors unanimously agreed with Vanessa Bryant and her attorneys’ argument that the photos invaded her privacy and caused emotional distress.

I’m sure they caused emotional distress. But how can an event that occurs in public be declared sufficiently private to have the protection of the right to privacy? If a journalist had taken the photos and published them, or shared them on a news website, presumably there would be no way Bryant’s widow would have a cause of action. I don’t see how a bystander with a cell phone could be blocked or sued either. These pictures were shared mostly among employees of the Los Angeles County sheriff’s and fire departments.They also were seen by some of their spouses and in one case by a bartender at a bar where a deputy was drinking. Well not to be unsympathetic, but so what? How does the right to privacy make reality a personal property protected by the law? If the bloody crash occurred where a crowd of a hundred people could see it, how would the law black them from taking photos and showing them to friends?

This seems like a terrible, slippery slope precedent. It is particularly ominous because public relations considerations may keep Los Angeles Country from appealing it all the way to the Supreme Court. making the case even more dubious is that the photographs in question, as well as never having been published, have all been deleted. They couldn’t be admitted into evidence. Nobody knows exactly what the photos contained, why they were taken, why they were shared, and why they were deleted.

Maybe there is a decisive precedent, but I can’t find one so far. All of the accounts tell us how much Vanessa Bryant wept, but not one, including those in the Times, bother to examine the legal and constitutional issues and relevant cases. As usual, this is more incompetent journalism. Making readers feel for the plaintiff is more important than explaining what the hell is going on.

Sure, I agree the showing grisly pictures of a celebrity’s death is ghoulish behavior, but like a lot of bad behavior, we have a right to do it. If we don’t, then the law is censoring what we can see, talk about and share, even when it has occurred in public. As I see it, this isn’t a privacy case; it’s a First Amendment case, and protecting free speech is a higher societal priority than protecting the sensitivities of celebrity families.

I hope I’m missing something. What is it?

30 thoughts on “Someone Explain The Kobe Bryant Photos Case To Me, Because I Don’t Understand It At All

  1. The only thing you are missing is that modern pop and political culture have successfully substituted feelings for reason. Since law depends on reason, it’s no longer a thing, and emotion controls the outcomes of civil litigation, elections, and darn near everything else.

    Aristotle is no longer relevant. Emo girls now inform our legal and moral code.

  2. What’s missing is that the people in question were all first responders, who have both a moral and legal obligation to protect the privacy of those that they deal with as part of their jobs.

    Scene photography at a site like this would almost certainly be warranted, but only by those specifically assigned to do so. I’m sure that the relevant authorities have access to similarly unpleasant photos as part of their case file on the crash. But that information is only made available under very specific circumstances (such as inquests and trials), just as releasing the identities of arrestees follows a very specific protocol (and the arresting officer has no role in that release).

    In my view, those on the scene that took and shared these images – regardless of how limited the sharing was – violated the trust of the public. I have no problem with the award.

    • Jack’s point was a public event cannot be private, so “rights to privacy” are inoperative. I agree with him. Anyone who had arrived there before the first responders could’ve taken pictures and shared them, presumably without legal consequence.

      It is therefore hard to understand how legal consequences attach to photos taken in public by public employees if they get released. When crime scene photos of murders get released, and they often do, lawsuits generally are ineffectual.

      I very strongly doubt this award would survive a determined appeal.

      • Glenn, the site of the crash wasn’t exactly accessible to the public – it was fairly high up a hillside. Had a member of the public hiked up and done this, that would have been something else entirely. The fact that it was done by civil servants who had an obligation to protect privacy is what makes the difference here.

        • Makes sense to me. If I learned that a friend had monkeypox, and told everyone about it, I doubt I would be open to a lawsuit. But, if I had access to their medical records and spread those around, I believe that would be a HIPAA violation, which WOULD be subject to a lawsuit. This was drilled into my head in call center jobs when there was even the possibility I might be viewing or gathering medical information.

          • It could also subject you to fines and even imprisonment. I work for a nationwide health insurance company. Insurance agents and family members throw fits when our representatives cannot disclose health information to them about a policy holder, but the additions to the PPACA legislation put fines and imprisonment down to the individual employee as a possibility so our company is extremely stringent on what gets disclosed.

            I cannot speak to what firefighters are permitted to share or not, but it would seem that some rules must apply to them, as well.

          • HIPPA is not public information. That’s not a helpful comparison. Nor was anything communicated with an understanding that it would be confidential. What if the crash was in someone’s front yard?

        • Glenn, the site of the crash wasn’t exactly accessible to the public – it was fairly high up a hillside.

          Yes, and that is utterly irrelevant to my argument.

          The fact that it was done by civil servants who had an obligation to protect privacy is what makes the difference here.

          Okay, show me the law, tort, or other legal process that requires or obligates civil servants to protect privacy. Consider me from Missouri (even though I am from Kentucky).

          • I find this query to be obtuse. You’d be asking me to sift through a century of case law. Howzabout you show me the policy that governs public disclosures by first responders and what can and cannot be released? Ridiculous? Yeah, I agree. But that’s what you’re asking me to do.

            I can tell you this: through my work with the ski industry (which is extensive and national) I can tell you that the tort system in California is heavily dependent upon precedent. And courts there are not afraid to set precedent, if there’s no statute in California law to address the situation. The plaintiff’s bar has HUGE influence on California’s legislature.

            If there WERE such statute in place, then we have one of the following: 1) a shitty defense, meaning that an appeal is in the offing; 2) a clear violation of state law, or 3) a clear violation of agency policy. I’m going with 2 or 3.

            • Fine, I didn’t mean for you to do extensive research, I was only asking you to show your work when you made your assertion that first responders have a duty to protect privacy with the concomitant implication that there is a tort or cause of action associated with it. It’s completely understandable that that may be more work than you (or me, for that matter) is willing to do in response to a blog comment. In other words, I don’t blame you for that

              But in the end I don’t think there is a tort or cause of action relevant to this case, and your attempt to persuade me otherwise, however well-intentioned, is insufficient. I don’t dispute your comments regarding the ethics of the matter, but as we both know, ethics is not law, nor vice-versa.

      • I would add that I’m a former first responder (emergency medical services, Boston and elsewhere). What these response personnel did was both unprofessional and unethical. And almost certainly in violation of agency policy. Again, I have no problem with the award.

        • Thank you for your service. As to the ethics and policy violations, I cannot say and will defer to your expertise. I still contend there is no actionable claim to privacy in such a scenario.

    • This is my reading of it, too. It wasn’t that some random looky-loos grabbed their phones and took photos, but that government employees – first responders – who are governed by privacy rules, took photos and shared them with non-medical personnel, such as spouses.

        • Not a lawyer so I’ve got nothing there. My post was pure speculation. I know that privacy (HIPAA) Laws govern what medical personnel or people who work with medical information are allowed to disclose and to whom it can be disclosed. I do not know whether or not firefighters are considered among that group of people, but it does seem that first responders, in some sense, have a greater responsibility to keep information confidential than your random accident scene bystander. Perhaps, that’s the jury’s thinking, too.

        • It was the DAMAGE done to HER. These first responders who are the ones that were supposed to “handle with care” handled this situation with
          “Gross Neglect.” They put salt on an opened wound of a grieving widow. Pure Example: Your Beautiful Wife, Beautiful Daughter and infant son deceased in a gruesome car wreck. The responders who are supposed to protect the site of the scene and whom you would, otherwise, tremendously “Thank” from the depths of your very being neglectfully and intentionally take photos of your “treasures” scattered about and leaked them to the public eye 👁. You are forced to not only live with your fate but live knowing that you were betrayed by the very ones who were only to offer SERVICES, HELP and CONSOLE. The very thought of this act can only add disgrace to your grief. But you have to live with this Everyday. So, I think if the shoe were on the other foot you would understand why she and the other families of the victims were
          awarded. -respectfully

    • I still don’t see how anything outside, in the open, not on private property, can be said to involve the privacy of third parties. Sure, violation of protocol and policies…unethical and cruel, but where’s the case law that says that the government can censor reality to the extent that showing it is a tort? How could that possibly not violate the 1st Amendment?

  3. Not all juries are equal. One like the Bryant jury is often thinking firstly (and incorrectly) that it is free money — it comes from insurance companies and doesn’t cost anyone. Secondly, I believe too often that jurors think if they were the one suing it would be great if the jury was sympathetic and found on their behalf. The law seldom enters into the deliberations of the jury.

  4. Wild stab in the dark, as I do not have time to try to track down the relevant pleadings:

    If the photos were part of an official government investigation, there was probably some form of classification for their dissemination.

    Minnesota has a Data Practices Act, which has several different classifications about who can see what information. Some information is public, other information is nonpublic, or confidential. A person injured by a violation of the statute can recover damages.

    In theory, the Bryant photos may have been subject to a certain classification that was not public in nature. However, people who were not entitled to the information received the information (viewing the photos because of a deliberate or negligent act of the government official. That could constitute and invasion of privacy for which damages could be sought.

    That is my best off-the-cuff inference.


  5. I believe this case is more around the duty of the State when its agents are performing first responder duties.

    A celebrity (and by extension, their family) should have the same expectation of privacy as the rest of the public should when they interact with first responders.

    HIPPA law violations also could be in play here, sharing images regarding the nature of being deceased is considered protected health information.

    This should also apply in cases like the Vegas concert shooting, where photos of the hotel room and deceased shooter were leaked to the media by a responding officer. But then again, the official investigative report was woefully brief considering the nature of the crime… It leaves this strange vacuum that is just begging to be filled by conspiracy theorists.

    • I believe this case is more around the duty of the State when its agents are performing first responder duties.

      The fact that officials are prevented by policies from sharing official photos does not make what is on the photos “private” if they were not private to begin with.

      A celebrity (and by extension, their family) should have the same expectation of privacy as the rest of the public should when they interact with first responders.

      They, in this case, were dead. Dead people who die in public have no reasonable expectations of privacy. Celebrities have even fewer.

      HIPPA law violations also could be in play here, sharing images regarding the nature of being deceased is considered protected health information.

      Impossible. No doctor, no hospital. If someone records me sneezing in public and shares the recording, can I claim a HIPPA breach? Come on.

      • Any disclosure of information that can identify an unique individual to a person outside that individual’s care team is a breach. One example shown in my annual training is nurses discussing a minority patient who happens to be the only person of that minority on that floor.

        I understand the photos shared included enough identifying information (i.e. tattoos) that it could clearly be identifiable as Kobe.

  6. I remember when schools and the MVA used to show grisly car crash scenes that were videotaped by law enforcement. These films were designed to show the real-world outcomes of negligent driving. In essence they were no different than snuff films. None of those victim’s families got a payoff to my knowledge.

    That was then and this is now. I am sure Kobe’s wife saw an opportunity and took it which in turn worked out in her favor. The fact that this went to a jury and not settled out of court in advance suggests the county attorneys believed no liability would be found.

  7. We have been on this slippery slope since we started compensating victims of accidents or intentional harm caused by others from public funds. A primary example is the ludicrous amount of money paid out to the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

  8. Not to insult the bereaved, while the allegation that first responders are prohibited from sharing pictures of the incident, there’s nothing that would bind a private citizen from taking pictures or video and sharing them with whomever they choose.
    That there were no private citizens nearby when the crash occurred doesn’t mean that any right to privacy existed.
    Then there’s the National Transportation Safety Board that investigates nearly every aircraft crash, especially one that causes death. Photos or videos are essential in determining the probable cause of a crash and will eventually become available to private citizens when the NTSB releases its findings (which is at least 12 months after the incident).
    I’ve seen more than a few reports of crashed aircraft with photos of mangled corpses of people who aren’t famous, and I don’t have any sort of privilege that would make me uniquely permitted to see these images.
    While I don’t doubt that family & friends don’t want these pictures in the public domain, there’s no right to privacy of things that can be seen from a non-private vantage; anyone with a phone can be a journalist.
    Not a lawyer, but an aviation enthusiast. There is an ick factor which is self-limited, but nothing in law prohibits dissemination.
    In some circles, these images are promoted to General Aviation pilots when the crash is an obvious result of pilot error and/or overconfidence/complacency, just like those films of car accidents were intended to jolt new drivers into more cautious habits.

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