Vanessa Bryant Awarded $16 Million by Jury in Suit Against LA County
- A jury awarded Vanessa Bryant $16 million in emotional distress damages in her trial against LA County first responders.
- County cops and fire officials took and shared graphic photos of Kobe and Gigi Bryant’s crash site remains.
- Chris Chester also lost family in the crash and was awarded $15 million in damages on similar grounds.
Vanessa Bryant, donning an all-white suit, sobbed and clasped her hands together on Wednesday as a Los Angeles jury awarded her $16 million in damages for emotional distress in her trial against Los Angeles County first responders who took and shared photos of Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s remains at the site where their helicopter crashed on January 26, 2020.
Chris Chester, whose wife Sarah and daughter Payton were also aboard the helicopter, was awarded $15 million after he and Bryant took on the county in a joint trial.
Bryant and Chester sued the county over allegations that deputies with the LA County Sheriff’s Department and fire captains with the LA County Fire Department took and shared graphic photos of the January 2020 helicopter crash that killed nine people, including NBA star Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna.
After only 4.5 hours of deliberations, the jury ultimately found that both LASD and LACFD violated Bryant and Chester’s constitutional rights and had inadequate training policies that led to the spread of the improper photos.
Bryant and Chester had alleged that the behavior of the first responders violated their constitutional right to the privacy of images of their loved ones, and sought damages due to the grief and anxiety they say they suffered because of the conduct of first responders on the day of the crash.
“She is here to expose the sheriff’s department and the fire department,” Bryant’s attorney said in closing statements.
Jurors were tasked with determining whether inadequate training and policies led to the improper photos being taken and disseminated among county staff members and whether it was a common agency practice to take photos of human remains and deceased people.
The jury determined that the sheriff’s department did have a common practice of taking photos, while the fire department did not.
In total, Bryant was awarded $2.5 million in past LASD damages; $7.5 million in future LASD damages; $1 million in past LACFD damages; and $5 million in future LACFD damages.
Chester, who remained stoic throughout the reading of the verdict, received $1.5 million in past LASD damages; $7.5 million in future damages from the department; $1 million in past LACFD damages; and $5 million in future damages from the agency.
The two together secured $31 million — almost exactly half of what the plaintiffs asked for.
Bryant exited the courtroom arm-in-arm with her eldest daughter Natalia, 19.
A long road to “accountability”
Attorneys for the county argued throughout the case that Bryant and Chester could not claim emotional distress from images that they have never seen.
“This is the pictures case, and there are no pictures,” Mira Hashmall, the county’s attorney, told jurors in her closing arguments, referring to the LA County Sheriff’s order to delete the graphic pictures of the crash to prevent their spread.
In response to the verdict, a county spokesperson told Insider: “We are grateful for the jury’s hard work in this case. 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.”
But Vanessa Bryant’s testimony last week certainly marked an emotional fever pitch as the NBA widow took the stand to discuss the heart-wrenching loss of her husband and 13-year-old daughter. Often dressed in black throughout the trial, Bryant described the deep-seated fear she has that the photos will surface, and said she suffered panic attacks after learning about what county first responders did.
Bryant on the stand was also defiant and critical of the cops and fire officials who testified ahead of her, who at times, offered little information about their role in the photos’ spread. Chester also took the stand and described the “grief compounded on grief” that he felt after losing his loved ones, and lamented his lost sense of privacy after learning of the photos.
As the deputies and captains implicated in the spread of the photos took the stand one by one over the past two weeks, they offered myriad reasons for why they took, and then shared, the graphic photos: curiosity got the better of them; they believed it was part of their job; or, as two back-to-back deputies testified, it was a way to “alleviate stress.”
During the trial, plaintiff’s lawyers zeroed in on the extensive efforts LASD took to keep the photos a secret in the aftermath of the crash, including issuing a department-wide deletion order. An internal investigation was eventually implemented, but only after a Los Angeles Times published a story revealing the spread of photos and deletion order.
Attorneys say fire and sheriff’s officials both at fault
In closing testimony, Chester attorney Jerome Jackson charged that both the LASD and LACFD were equally at fault for the actions of their staff. The plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that both the lack of official policy around photographing human remains, and the common practice of sharing graphic photos at the agencies led to the dissemination of the gruesome photos.
Attorneys for Bryant and Chester spent time charting the network and timeline of LASD and LACFD who took and shared the photos, and heavily criticized the investigative mechanisms of the two agencies, arguing that they did too little, too late.
In jury instructions, the judge determined that LASD and LACFD were entitled to separate claims, meaning the jury assigned responsibility and damages for each agency. Jurors were also instructed that their verdict is about the actions of specific employees, and not entire agencies.
A tech expert hired by Bryant’s lawyers told the courtroom on Wednesday that a September 2021 analysis found that deputies “violated fundamental forensic policies” when they deleted the crash site photos. Nine of eleven phones turned in by LASD staff for the analysis were new since the January 2020 crash, and another – the phone that was used to show crash site photos at the bar – was reset to factory settings, rendering any attempt to use metadata to track the spread of photos impossible.
The judge ultimately allowed jurors to decide whether they believed the LASD had destroyed evidence, and said if they decided the agency was guilty of doing so, jurors could presume that evidence would have been unfavorable to the department.
Only “god knows”
Sheriff Alex Villanueva took the stand during the trial to defend his deletion order and his deputies who took the crash site photos. He said that only “god knows” if the graphic photos are still out there, as his staff members’ phones were never forensically searched.
Jurors also heard explosive testimony, from retired fire Captain Brian Jordan, who took dozens of graphic photos at the crash scene. He abruptly left the stand three separate times and suggested he was being framed due to “false allegations.” While under an internal investigation, he retired early, citing his mental health, and returned his county-issued laptop without a hard drive as fire staff who participated in the dissemination of the photos were ordered to turn in electronics.
Attorneys for the county stressed the heroism of their staff on the day of the crash throughout the trial and have maintained that the deletion order was effective once the photos were discovered. They also stated that on the day of the crash, scene photography was “essential” for first responders to do their jobs.
Private citizens offered moving testimonies
A private citizen just days after the crash filed a complaint with the agency after he said he witnessed an LASD Deputy Joey Cruz showing a bartender photos of victims’ remains while at a Norwalk bar. Cruz, and Victor Gutierrez, the bartender, both confirmed that they were looking at graphic crash site photos as the courtroom watched surveillance footage of them zooming in and out of the photos.
Less than a month later, Luella Weireter, who lost family members in the crash also filed a complaint with the county fire department after witnessing a group of LA fire captains and their partners looking at photos from the crash while at an awards gala.
Tony Imbrenda, who showed the photos at the gala, said that Weireter was “mistaken,” and denied showing photos of Kobe Bryant’s dead body even though his department found that he had circulated illicit crash photos.
Weireter was in the courtroom for the final day of the trial on Wednesday and was acknowledged by Bryant attorney Luis Li, who said that if it weren’t for the courage of the people who filed complaints, the trial would not have taken shape.