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 that sheriff’s deputies and firefighters took of the helicopter crash site of 2020, which killed Bryant, his daughter, and seven. others.
In reaching the verdict after only a few hours of deliberations, jurors explained that they were persuaded by lawyers for Bryant and Chris Chester, who argued that illegal photographs of the bodies of the crash victims violated their clients’ right to privacy and caused emotional distress. misery 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 jurors during his closing arguments on Tuesday, on what would have been Kobe Bryant’s 44th birthday. “We are here because of intentional behavior. Deliberate behavior 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 distress they found the two had already suffered from the photos and would suffer going forward.
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. An attorney for the district declined to comment on the ruling.
During the 11-day trial, attorneys for Bryant and Chester documented how the photos spread from the phones of deputies and firefighters at the crash site on a steep hillside in Calabasas: They were flashed from a sheriff’s deputy’s phone screen to a bartender in Norwalk. They were shown to firefighters and their spouses at an awards party at a hotel in Universal City in what amounted, one witness said, to a “party trick.” They were passed from one deputy to another as the pair played video games.
County attorneys countered that there are legitimate reasons for first responders to take and receive the photos, including to help determine the size of the crash scene and decide what resources are needed. The images, they say, were never released online or in the media — nor were they seen by the victims’ families because of quick work by sheriffs and fire officials in suppressing their spread.
“This is the photo case, and there are no pictures,” Mira Hashmall, a lawyer representing the district, repeated several times in her closing argument.
But lawyers for Bryant and Chester argued it was unknown how far the pictures spread because the county did not thoroughly investigate. It wasn’t until most of the deputies involved received new phones that officials hired a company to conduct a forensic examination of employee devices.
“The truth is the county has no idea, no idea who had the photos and who they sent them to,” Lavoie said.
The laptop of one fire captain who took pictures, Lavoie said, was missing its hard drive when it was examined. The captain, Brian Jordan, who later retired, claimed under oath that he did not remember altogether being at the crash site.
The phone of Joey Cruz, a deputy who showed graphic photos to a bartender in Norwalk, was restored before it was turned over to the company, Lavoie said. When it was on, it was like new, no photos saved. County attorneys argued that Cruz transferred his data to his new phone, which also had no crash photos stored on it.
And the identity of at least one firefighter who received the photos remains unknown.
In their closing statements, attorneys for Bryant and Chester questioned the credibility of some deputies and firefighters who testified about what they did and why. Several gave testimony that was inconsistent with their earlier statements or were in conflict with the testimony of other witnesses.
For example, Doug Johnson, the deputy who took photos that included close-ups of human remains, testified that he took 25 photos. But two other officials testified that Johnson told them he took at least 100.
Under cross-examination Friday, Villanueva said the fact that no photos appeared online proved that internal investigators assigned to the case did a thorough job of stopping their dissemination. But his certainty wavered a bit after seeming to learn on the stand about the discrepancies in Johnson’s photo count and the fire official who was never identified.
“I believe they were all removed,” he said, adding, “I’m pretty sure that’s accurate.”
When pressed further, he said: “God knows – that’s about it.”
Lavoie told the nine jurors that if he asked them to come up with a percentage that would represent the chances that these photos would appear, 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 photos will come out, or they’ll live in fear of 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 specify a figure.
“You can’t award too much money for what they’ve been through,” Jackson said. “What they went through is inhumane and inhumane,” he said, gesturing to the county, “and they did it.”