Los Angeles County must pay $31 million in damages to the relatives of the victims of a 2020 helicopter crash that killed Lakers basketball star Kobe Bryant, 41, his daughter Gianna, 13, and seven other people. The jury agreed that the deputies and firefighters at the scene had violated the privacy of the families and victims by sharing of photos of human remains at the helicopter crash site.
“I expected more compassion and respect from them,” Vanessa Bryant, the basketball player’s widow, testified in court on Friday. “My husband and my daughter deserve dignity.”
Vanessa Bryant had sued Los Angeles County, alleging invasion of privacy, after accusing members of the Los Angeles County sheriff’s and fire departments of sharing gruesome images of the crash in unofficial settings, including to patrons in a bar. The jury awarded Bryant $16 million in damages on Wednesday, while fellow plaintiff Chris Chester, who lost his wife and daughter in the January 26, 2020 helicopter crash, was awarded $15 million.
During the trial, the city authorities argued that the images taken by the policemen who cordoned off the area were not widely distributed and that none of them were leaked to the media. Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva testified last week that his staff took photos at the crash scene to determine what response was needed from the emergency crew. But Bryant’s lawyers argued that only the coroner’s office and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) were qualified to take the photos.
The nine-member jury announced the verdict after just a few hours of deliberation. Kobe Bryant was 41 when he died. He would have celebrated his 44th birthday on Tuesday.
During the 11-day trial, lawyers for Bryant and Chester documented how the graphic photos of the crash scene were shown to a bartender in Norwalk, and during an awards gala at a hotel in Universal City, according to an eyewitness. “We’re not here because of an accident,” Bryant’s attorney Craig Lavoie told jurors during his closing arguments. “We’re here because of intentional conduct.”
The lawyers for Los Angeles County countered that “not a single picture” from the scene has been leaked. “This is a picture case and there are no pictures,” said attorney Mira Hashmall.
But Lavoie said it was impossible to know how many people had seen the graphic images. Joey Cruz, the police deputy who showed the photo on his cellphone to a bartender, deleted all images from the device before turning it over to investigators. While former fire captain Brian Jordan also deleted the images from his work laptop, which he returned to the county without a hard drive. Sheriff Doug Johnson testified that he took 25 photos at the crash site, with some of the images depicting close-ups of body parts. Two other agents told court that Johnson had said he had taken at least 100 photos.
Speaking in court on Friday, Vanessa Bryant said that after hearing about the accident, she rushed to the Lost Hills police station, where Villanueva confirmed that her husband and daughter had died in a helicopter crash. The sheriff asked Bryant if he could do anything for her. “I’m worried about the paparazzi,” she told him. The sheriff told her the city had prevented media helicopters from flying over the scene. The Lakers star’s death was first reported by TMZ, a gossip and entertainment website.
A month after the accident, the Los Angeles Times revealed in an investigation that several officers tasked with guarding the perimeter had taken photos of the crash site and shared them with colleagues. Neither Bryant nor Chester had been informed of this. After learning of the photos’ existence, both said they felt anxiety that the images would be leaked to the press. “I felt like I wanted to run down the block and scream,” she told the court on Friday, her body shaking with emotion. “I can’t escape my body. I can’t escape what I feel.”
An attorney had urged the jury to award $75 million to Bryant and Chester for the pain caused. The trial has made it clear that nobody knows if the graphic images still exist or if they will ever be seen again.