Kobe Bryant lawsuit: LA County ordered to pay $31 million in damages over crash scene photos
LOS ANGELES - A jury has ordered Los Angeles County to pay $31 million in damages over the actions of first-responders who took 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 damages were awarded to Vanessa Bryant and co-plaintiff Chris Chester, whose wife and daughter died in the Jan. 26, 2020, crash on a Calabasas hillside.
The jury awarded Bryant $16 million and Chester $15 million.
Jurors in downtown Los Angeles reached their verdict after roughly four and a half hours of deliberations. Coincidentally, the verdict was reached on Kobe Bryant Day 8/24… which represents his jersey numbers.
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!"
The damages awarded to the plaintiffs cover past pain and suffering and future emotional damage. The jury found that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles County Fire Department violated Bryant and Chester's constitutional rights. 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.
TMZ’s Harvey Levin told FOX 11 that after the verdict was read, he got a text message from a county official saying they were "extremely relieved" that the dollar amount wasn’t as high as they anticipated.
"This person who I had spoken to, feared yesterday that this verdict could have been many times that amount and was somewhat relieved, although it is a lot of money, that it wasn’t a lot higher," Levin said.
Vanessa Bryant and Chris Chester's combined lawsuits allege negligence and invasion of privacy for the taking and sharing of accident scene photos.
Vanessa Bryant and Irvine financial adviser Chris Chester sued the county for unspecified millions of dollars over the digital images, which they have never seen. Bryant's 41-year-old husband Kobe and 13-year-old daughter Gianna, along with Chester's wife Sarah and the couple's 13-year-old daughter Payton, were among the nine people killed.
The plaintiffs allege that county personnel took grisly cell phone pictures of human remains at the remote Calabasas crash site for their own amusement as "souvenirs" and shared them with other law enforcement personnel and members of the public.
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"The jury decided liability in a nanosecond. The county was saying it's all theoretical, her emotional distress isn’t real because the pictures haven’t leaked. The jury just didn’t buy what the county was selling. And then it just came down to how much, and I'm a little surprised they came up with that amount so quickly," Levin added.
An attorney for Chester had asked the panel to compel the county to pay a total of $75 million split between Kobe Bryant's 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.
The county's lead lawyer argued during her summation that the photos have not surfaced in public in the 2 1/2 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 remote Calabasas crash site for their own amusement as "souvenirs" and shared them with other law enforcement personnel and members of the public.
The county has not disputed 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.
LA County attorney Mira Hashmall said 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.
In tearful testimony, Kobe's widow 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.
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 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 for the crash, but those terms remain confidential.