A federal jury has awarded Vanessa Bryant $16 million and her co-plaintiff $15 million for mental anguish caused by the actions of first-responders who snapped and shared gruesome photos from the scene of the 2020 helicopter crash that killed Laker legend Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven other people.
The combined damages were awarded Wednesday to Bryant’s widow and co-plaintiff Chris Chester, whose wife Sarah and 13-year-old daughter Payton also died in the Jan. 26, 2020, 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. A short time after leaving the courthouse, she posted a photo of herself with Kobe and daughter Gianna, with the caption, “All for you! I love you! JUSTICE for Kobe and Gigi!”
In calculating damages, the jury found that the LA County Sheriff’s Department and the LA 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. Of the $31 million, $19 million will be paid by the sheriff’s department, with the rest due from the county fire department.
The jury’s 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 plaintiffs argued that county personnel took graphic cell-phone pictures of human remains at the crash site for their own amusement as “souvenirs” and shared them with other law enforcement personnel and members of the public.
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.
Hashmall told jurors that while three employees broke confidentiality policies, Bryant and Chester’s privacy rights regarding their loved ones’ remains were not violated since the crash-site images never leaked out.
“We’re not talking about a clear right, like the right to remain silent,” she said in her closing argument, adding that picture-taking does not equal public dissemination. “It’s not a basis for a claim. … It’s a county issue, not a constitutional issue.”
However, Bryant and Chester insisted they have no evidence 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.”
In tearful testimony, Kobe’s widow also took the stand last week, telling the court she “lives in fear” of coming across leaked photos showing the broken bodies of her loved ones someday on the internet.
“It’s like COVID. Once it’s spread, you can’t get it back,” she testified, telling jurors that she “expected (first responders) to have compassion, respect. My husband and my daughter deserved dignity. Every night, I think about what was done to them.”
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. The group began deliberating just before lunchtime Wednesday.
In discussing monetary damages due each plaintiff, attorney Jerry Jackson said that if the jury felt the proposed $75 million was too high, “you should reduce it. If you think it’s too low, you should increase it.”
For what the plaintiffs have gone through, and can expect in terms of future emotional distress, “you can’t stack it too high,” Jackson said Tuesday.
Plaintiffs attorneys argued that the county had no policies or training in January 2020 that directly addressed the taking of photos of dead bodies by deputies and firefighters.
Hashmall, though, countered that both departments definitely had policies that addressed such behavior. She told the jury that when two private citizens reported incidents in which employees were displaying cell phone photos of the crash at a bar in Norwalk and at the Golden Mike awards gala, the county departments immediately took action.
“Mistakes by a few personnel is not the basis for millions and millions of dollars in damages,” the defense lawyer said.
But Bryant attorney Craig Lavoie argued that the sharing of digital photos of human remains was not a mistake.
“We’re here because of intentional conduct,” he said in his closing on Tuesday. “Intentional conduct by those who were charged with protecting the dignity of Sarah and Payton, and Kobe and Gianna.”
As for Bryant and Chester’s emotional distress claim, the county’s attorney said “there are probably many things” that trigger such a reaction.
“What’s not understandable is trying to pin all the blame on the county when those pictures did not get out,” Hashmall said. “That sadness and grief is about the loss of their loved ones. It can’t be about pictures they’ve never seen. A court of law requires evidence not emotion.”
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.