A jury on Wednesday ordered Los Angeles County to pay Vanessa Bryant, widow of Lakers star Kobe Bryant, and another man $31 million in damages for the graphic photos sheriffs and firefighters took of the 2020 helicopter crash scene in which Bryant, his daughter and seven died. others.
When they came to the verdict after only a few hours of deliberation, the jurors made it clear that they had been persuaded by lawyers for Bryant and Chris Chester, who argued that illegal photos of the bodies of the victims of the crash would protect their clients’ right to privacy. violated and inflicted emotional damage. fear. Chester lost his wife, Sarah, and daughter, Payton, in the crash.
“We’re not here because of an accident,” Bryant’s attorney Craig Lavoie told the jury during his closing statement Tuesday, on what would have been Kobe Bryant’s 44th birthday. “We’re here because of intentional behavior. Deliberate conduct by those charged with protecting the dignity of Sarah and Payton, and Kobe and Gianna.”
Jurors awarded Bryant $16 million and Chester $15 million for the grief they discovered the two had already suffered over the photos and would suffer in the future.
As the verdict was read, Bryant wept with her head bowed and her hands folded in a prayer position.
Bryant left the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles shortly after without speaking to reporters. A county attorney declined to comment on the verdict.
During the 11-day trial, attorneys for Bryant and Chester documented how the photos spread from the phones of officers and firefighters at the accident site on a steep hill in Calabasas: They were flashed from a sheriff’s phone screen to a bartender in norwalk. They were shown to firefighters and their husbands at an awards ceremony at a Universal City hotel, which one witness said amounted to a “party trick.” They were passed from one delegate to another while the couple played video games.
County attorneys objected that there were legitimate reasons for first responders to take and receive the photos, including to help determine the size of the crash site and decide what resources were needed. The images, they say, have never been published online or in the media — nor seen by the victims’ families because of the quick work of sheriffs and firefighters to stop their spread.
“This is the photo shop, and there are no photos,” Mira Hashmall, a lawyer representing the county, repeated several times in her closing statement.
But attorneys for Bryant and Chester argued it’s unknown how far the images have spread because the county hasn’t conducted a thorough investigation. It wasn’t until most of the officers involved had received new phones that officials hired a company to do forensics on employee devices.
“The truth is the county has no idea, no idea who had the photos and who they sent them to,” Lavoie said.
A fire chief’s laptop taking photos, Lavoie said, was missing its hard drive when it was examined. The captain, Brian Jordan, who has since retired, claimed under oath that he did not remember being at the crash site at all.
The phone of Joey Cruz, a deputy who showed graphics to a bartender in Norwalk, had been reset before being handed over to the company, Lavoie said. When it turned on, it was like new, with no saved photos. County attorneys argued that Cruz had transferred his data to his new phone, which also had no crash photos stored.
And the identity of at least one firefighter who received the photos remains unknown.
In their closing statements, Bryant and Chester’s attorneys questioned the credibility of some deputies and firefighters who testified about what they did and why. Several made statements that contradicted their previous statements or were at odds with the statements of other witnesses.
For example, Doug Johnson, the sheriff’s deputy who took close-up photos of human remains, testified that he took 25 photos. But two other officials testified that Johnson told them he had taken at least 100.
During a cross-examination Friday, Villanueva said the fact that no photos surfaced online proved that internal investigators assigned to the case had done thorough work to stop its spread. But his certainty wavered somewhat after he appeared in the stands to hear about the discrepancies in Johnson’s photo count and the fire officer who was never identified.
“I believe they’ve all been removed,” he said, adding, “I’m pretty sure that’s right.”
When he pressed further, he said, “God knows — that’s about it.”
Lavoie told the nine judges that if he asked them to think of a percentage that would represent the probability of these photos appearing, he would probably hear nine different answers.
“Whatever any of us think that number is, it’s definitely not zero,” Lavoie said.
And that means that for the rest of Bryant and Chester’s lives, one of two things will happen: The pictures will come up, or they will live in fear about when that day might come, Lavoie said.
Chester’s attorney Jerry Jackson asked the jury to award Bryant and Chester up to $75 million in combined damages for their emotional distress. Bryant’s lawyers did not provide a number.
“You can’t allocate too much money for what they’ve been through,” Jackson said. “What they’ve been through is inhumane and inhumane,” he said, gesturing to the province, “and they’ve done it.”