The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a $2.5-million settlement for two families suing over the unauthorized sharing of photos of the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash, in which their loved ones also were killed.
Matthew Mauser will receive $1.25 million and siblings J.J. Altobelli and Alexis Altobelli will share another $1.25 million. Mauser’s wife, Christine, and the Altobellis’ mother, father and younger sister — Keri, John and Alyssa — died in the Jan. 26, 2020, crash that also killed Bryant, his daughter Gianna and three others.
The Altobellis and Matthew Mauser filed separate federal lawsuits against the county alleging they suffered emotional distress after a Times investigation revealed that Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies and firefighters took and shared crash scene photos for purposes outside law enforcement.
The lawsuits mirror one filed by Vanessa Bryant, the widow of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, who lost her husband and 13-year-old daughter in the crash. In a deposition made public last month, Bryant revealed how Sheriff Alex Villanueva pledged to her personally that no one would take photographs of her family.
In addition to Bryant’s lawsuit, the surviving family members of Sarah Chester and her 13-year-old daughter, Payton, who also died in the crash, have sued over the crash scene photos. Sarah’s husband, Christopher Chester, along with their sons, Riley and Hayden, filed suit in December citing emotional stress.
A report from L.A. County’s counsel recommended the settlement with the Mausers and Altobellis.
“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; therefore, full and final settlements of the two cases are warranted.”
The county has already spent approximately $1.29 million in legal costs in the two cases.
“We believe these proposed settlements of $1.25 million are reasonable and fair to all concerned,” attorney Skip Miller, of Miller Barondess, who represents the county, said last week. “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.”
Vanessa Bryant has waged an intense battle with the county, even using her social media cachet to castigate the sheriff and name the deputies linked to the photo scandal.
A federal magistrate decided Monday that the county cannot require her and Christopher Chester to undergo a psychiatric examination in advance of a February scheduled trial. Lawyers for the county have argued in court papers that she cannot suffer severe distress from crash photos that she and the public have never seen.
County officials and Miller have repeatedly emphasized in court papers that none of the photographs have been made public, in print or online, and that they were shared only by county personnel.
Bryant won a legal victory in the case last week, forcing Villanueva and Fire Chief Daryl Osby to be deposed in the case.
Lawyers for L.A. County had sought to block Villanueva’s testimony, arguing that he doesn’t have any relevant information that Bryant’s attorneys can’t obtain elsewhere. Heads of government agencies are not typically subjected to depositions because of the potential for abuse and harassment that could get in the way of them performing their duties.
But U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles F. Eick knocked down the county’s argument, saying Villanueva and Osby both appear to have “unique first-hand, non-repetitive knowledge” relevant to the case. The judge limited each deposition to four hours.
Bryant’s attorneys have said in court papers they plan to question the sheriff about his involvement in directing deputies to delete the photos and whether that was done to protect the loved ones of those killed in the crash or to cover up the misconduct.
The lawsuits that Bryant and the Chester, Mauser and Altobelli families filed stem from revelations that sheriff’s deputies shared grim images of the crash scene, despite Villanueva’s assurance “that every possible measure” was instituted to “preserve and protect” the Calabasas site, according to court papers.
The dissemination came to light after a deputy trainee showed images on his cellphone to patrons at a bar. Citizens complained about that instance and one in which a firefighter showed photos to a group of off-duty firefighters and their partners, according to filings in the lawsuits.