The previously announced $31 million combined jury award against Los Angeles County for Vanessa Bryant and her co-plaintiff in the helicopter crash-site photos trial should have been $30 million, a judge determined Friday, based on a juror’s note delivered less than an hour after the higher number was read aloud in court Wednesday and reported around the world.
At a hearing in federal court Friday, U.S. District Judge John Walter read into the record that at 4:45 p.m. Wednesday, a juror advised the courtroom deputy that there was an error in the verdict form as to Vanessa Bryant, who had been awarded a total of $16 million for past and future damages — including $2.5 million to be paid by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for past suffering.
According to a transcript of the Friday proceedings provided to City News Service, the courtroom deputy advised the juror to write a note explaining the alleged error. The juror then prepared a handwritten note that was filed with the court under seal. In the note, the juror stated that Vanessa Bryant should be awarded $1.5 million by the sheriff’s department, not $2.5 million, for past damages.
The note states that it was the nine jurors’ intent that both plaintiffs Vanessa Bryant and Chris Chester be awarded equally, the judge stated.
Walter held a sealed hearing Thursday morning with counsel to discuss the matter and requested briefs by that afternoon.
“In her brief, Plaintiff Vanessa Bryant states that she is willing to agree to an amended verdict and/or judgment that reduces her award against the sheriff’s department by $1 million to avoid any potential need for examination of jurors after they have already been discharged and potentially exposed to outside influences,” the judge said.
That lowers her total award to $15 million, the same amount levied against the county by jurors on behalf of Chester.
Bryant’s attorney, Luis Li, told the court that his client “truly feels that it’s a just result that she was awarded the same amount as Mr. Chester. From her heart she feels that.”
The judge said that in light of the circumstances, recalling the discharged jury would not have been appropriate.
“This trial and the verdict has received national publicity,” he said. “The jury in this case not only left the building but had to be escorted out of the building to ensure their privacy. The juror did not notify the Court of the potential error until almost 35 to 40 minutes after the verdicts were read after which major news organizations, including CNN, were already reporting the results of the verdict.”
The judge asked attorneys to meet and confer and prepare and file separate proposed judgments for both Bryant and Chester by the end of the month.
At the conclusion of the hour-plus hearing, Bryant attorney Luis Li said that in his 30 years of practice, he’s never dealt with such a “sticky issue” relating to jurors.
The damages levied against Los Angeles County were awarded to compensate for past and future mental anguish caused by the actions of county personnel who snapped and shared cell phone pictures taken at the January 2020 accident scene.
Both plaintiffs lost spouses and daughters in the crash. Bryant’s husband and daughter Gianna, and Chester’s wife Sarah and 13-year-old daughter Payton died in the crash on a remote Calabasas hillside.
Jurors in downtown Los Angeles reached their verdict after roughly four-and-a-half hours of deliberations on the trial’s 11th day. Vanessa Bryant wept as the verdict was announced and a short time later posted a photo of herself with Kobe and Gianna, with the caption, “All for you! I love you! JUSTICE for Kobe and Gigi!”
Thursday, the widow announced plans to donate proceeds from her part of the judgment to a foundation named in her husband’s and daughter’s memory. The nonprofit Mamba and Mambacita Sports foundation offers sports education to underserved athletes. Kobe Bryant’s nickname was Black Mamba.
In calculating damages, the jury found that the sheriff’s department and the Los Angeles County Fire Department both violated Bryant and Chester’s constitutional rights to privacy for their loved ones in death.
Mira Hashmall, a private attorney who represented the county in the case, issued a statement after the verdict saying attorneys “will be discussing next steps with our client.”
“Meanwhile, we hope the Bryant and Chester families continue to heal from their tragic loss,” Hashmall said.
While the jury held the sheriff’s department liable for maintaining a practice of sharing photos taken at accident or crime scenes, the county fire department was not found to have such a custom.
The verdict came one day after what would have been Kobe Bryant’s 44th birthday, and it happened on “Mamba Day” in Los Angeles, which celebrates his life each year on Aug. 24, or 8-24, the two numbers he wore during his 20-year career with the Lakers.
An attorney for Chester had asked the panel to compel the county to pay a total of $75 million split between the widow and Chester for pain and suffering engendered when the pictures were snapped and displayed for no good reason to a bartender, attendees of an awards ceremony and sent by a sheriff’s deputy to a colleague while they were playing a video game.
Hashmall argued during her summation Wednesday that the photos have not surfaced in public in the two-and-a-half years since the tragedy, which proves they have been permanently deleted.
“This is a photo case, but there are no photos,” the attorney told jurors in Los Angeles federal court. “There’s a simple truth that cannot be ignored — there’s been no public dissemination.”
The county did not dispute that some photos were shared with a small number of deputies and firefighters. Defense attorneys maintained that all images taken by first responders were destroyed on orders of the sheriff and fire chief, and no longer exist in any form. The photos never entered the public domain or appeared on the internet, the county insisted.
However, Bryant and Chester insisted they do not believe that the pictures won’t someday surface.
Chester, an Irvine financial adviser, said on the stand that he was “in disbelief at first. It never crossed my mind in my wildest imagination” that deputies and firefighters would take and share photos of his wife Sarah and their daughter Payton.
“It was grief on top of grief,” he said. “I want justice and accountability.”
The nine-member jury included a nun, a TV production worker, a college student, a real estate investor, a pharmaceutical researcher and a restaurant host.
Along with Chester and Bryant’s loved ones, the crash killed Alyssa Altobelli, 14; Keri Altobelli, 46; John Altobelli, 56; Christina Mauser, 38; and pilot Ara Zobayan, 50.
Two other families separately settled with the county over the photos for $1.25 million each. All of the victims’ families reached a settlement with the helicopter company over the crash, but those terms remain confidential.