LOS ANGELES – A federal jury has awarded Kobe Bryant’s widow Vanessa $16 millionafter an 11-day civil trial that went into graphic detail about gruesome photos that were taken and shared from the scene of a helicopter crash that killed all nine aboard in January 2020, including the NBA legend and his daughter.
The nine-member jury found Los Angeles County liable for damages toBryant and Chris Chester, a financial adviser who lost his wife and daughter in the same crash and separately was awarded $15 millionby the same jury.
Both plaintiffs sued the county and brought the case to trial not because they believed the county was responsible for the crash but because of what happened right afterward with the taking and sharing of photos of their family members’ remains.
They asked the jurors to decide three general questions:
- Did county sheriff’s and fire department employees violate the plaintiffs’ constitutional privacy rights when these employees used their personal cell phones to display and share gratuitous photos of dead crash victims from the crash site?
- If so, was the county liable for that conduct as an organization because it failed to prevent it through its policies and training or had a longstanding custom of such violations?
- And if that’s the case, what should Bryant and Chester be awarded in damages for their past and future emotional distress?
The jury gave its answerWednesday after about four hours of deliberations, handing a victory to Chester and Bryant, who left the courtroomholding hands with her eldest daughter Natalia. She did not comment as she pushed through a crowd of news cameras and got into black GMC Yukon with her attorney, Luis Li.
“This case has always been about accountability,” Li said. “And now the jury has unanimously spoken.”
Conversely, the verdict marked abig defeat to the taxpayer-funded county, which insisted throughout the case that the photos were not publicly disseminated under the standard required by federal precedent. The county’s legal team said the photos never were posted online and were forever deleted shortly after the crash in an effort to prevent their further spread.
In a statement after the verdict, the county's lead outside counsel noted the $31 million combined verdict for the two plaintiffs didn't come close to the $75 million combined verdict proposed in court a day earlier by Chester's attorney, Jerome Jackson.
“We are grateful for the jury’s hard work in this case," said a statement from Mira Hashmallof the firm Miller Barondess. "While we disagree with the jury’s findings as to the County’s liability, we believe the monetary award shows that jurors didn’t believe the evidence supported the Plaintiffs’ request of $75 million for emotional distress. We will be discussing next steps with our client. Meanwhile, we hope the Bryant and Chester families continue to heal from their tragic loss.”
Of the $16 million verdict for Bryant, the jury attributed $10million to the sheriff's department and $6 million to the fire department. Similarly, the jury attributed $9 million of Chester's award to the sheriff's department and $6 million to the fire department.
The awards cover their past and future emotional distress, as their attorneystold the jury theylive in fear that the photos will one day re-emerge to terrorize them and their families. They cited evidence of several people who possessed or received the photos but were never identified, as well as the missing computer hard drive of a fire captain, Brian Jordan, who was rebuked in a letter from his department for taking photos from the crash scene without having a legitimate business reason for doing so.
Li, Bryant's attorney, even asked L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva about this at the trial Aug. 19.
“Sir, you have no idea, do you, where all of the photographs went, do you?” Li asked him.
“I believe they were all deleted,” Villanueva replied.
Li then pressed him if he knew for sure.
“God knows, and that’s about it,” Villanueva said.
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At the trial, the plaintiffs’ attorneys also emphasized two public incidents in which the photos were displayed or “publicly disseminated,” arguably violating the rights of the plaintiffs. One was two days after the crash at a restaurant bar in Norwalk, California, when a sheriff’s deputy trainee named Joey Cruz was shown on surveillance video showing his phone to the bartender and then making gestures to his torso and head. The bartender said Cruz described the photos as including Kobe’s remains, but Cruz gave conflicting testimony at trial when he was forced to sit on the witness stand just a few feet away from Bryant’s widow.
That incident came to light when a patron at the restaurant that night filed a complaint on the sheriff’s department’s website after the bartender approached his table to tell him what Cruz had shown him.
Under the subject line “Kobe,” the complaint said, “There was a deputy at Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk who was . . . showing pictures of his decapitated body.”
Another whistleblower also played a role in a different incident coming to light among fire department employees at an awards gala during cocktail hour in February 2020. This was when fire captain Tony Imbrenda showed crash-scene photos on his phone to a group, including one who walked away saying he had just seen Kobe’s “burnt-up” body, according to the witness. Imbrenda denied this at trial, but one of Bryant’s attorneys asked the jury to consider who was more credible: Imbrenda or the woman who reported what she heard –a former emergency medical technician who also is a cousin of one of the other victims of the crash.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys said these county employees used the photos for their own personal amusement or souvenirs, such as when another sheriff’s deputy sent gruesome crash photos to his friend playing the “Call of Duty” video game.
“I had no business doing that, no,” the deputy, Michael Russell, testified.
The jury ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on all but one question presented to them for each plaintiff – whether the fire department violated their rights "based on a widespread or longstanding practice or custom." The plaintiffs prevailed on the other liability questions as it pertained to the county agencies' failure to prevent such violations with adequate policies or training.
"The plaintiffs had strong, sympathetic cases and the defendants’ lack of proper protocols and/or failure to enforce any that they had made it an easy case for the jury on liability," said Carl Tobias, law professor at the University of Richmond. "And the behavior of defendants seemed so outrageous and unnecessary that substantial damages were warranted."
The plaintiffs' attorneys said the spread of the photoscame from the morning of the crash, when one deputy, Douglas Johnson, hiked up through rough and foggy terrain to arrive at a grisly scene where body parts and debris layscattered in the hills of Calabasas. Johnson said he took about 25 photos including several close-ups of dead bodies in an effort to document the scene. He then passed them on to another deputy and a fire department employee who never was identified and theoretically still could have all the photos.
Johnson also said he guided Jordan around the scene, where he took photos that his department determined only served to appeal to “baser instincts” and had no “intel or safety value,” according to a letter sent to him by the department in December 2020.
The photos eventually ended up with Cruz and Imbrenda and who knows who else.
"We are very grateful for the court and jury which gave us a fair trial," said Jackson, Chester's attorney.
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: email@example.com
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Christopher Chester, who lost his wife and daughter in the helicopter crash that also killed Kobe Bryant and six others, took the stand Thursday, testifying he lives in fear that the graphic photos taken of his loved ones' bodies may resurface one day. “I'm fearful all the time, every day,” he told the court.
A court victory for the family of late basketball star Kobe Bryant. A judge has ordered Los Angeles County to pay $31 million for the handling of graphic photos of the helicopter crash that killed nine people in 2020, including Bryant and his daughter, Gigi. Bryant's widow, Vanessa, will receive $16 million.
In addition to her husband's earnings, Vanessa has also amassed a significant fortune through her own business ventures, including her work as a model and actress. With such a massive net worth, it's no wonder that Vanessa is one of the richest celebrities in the world today.
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