Vanessa Bryant walks away from graphic crash photo suit with $16 million payout
Los Angeles, California - A jury 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 sheriff's deputies and firefighters took on the scene of the 2020 helicopter crash that killed Kobe, his daughter Gianna, and seven others.
In reaching the verdict after only a few hours of deliberations, jurors made it clear they had been persuaded by attorneys for Vanessa Bryant and Chris Chester, who argued illicit photos of the crash victims' bodies had violated their clients' right to privacy and inflicted emotional distress. Chris Chester lost his wife, Sarah, and daughter, Payton, in the crash.
"We're not here because of an accident," Vanessa Bryant's attorney Craig Lavoie told jurors during his closing arguments Tuesday, on what would have been Kobe Bryant's 44th birthday. "We're here because of intentional conduct. Intentional conduct by those who were charged with protecting the dignity of Sarah and Payton, and Kobe and Gianna."
Throughout the 11-day trial in federal court in Los Angeles, lawyers for Vanessa Bryant and Chris Chester documented how the photos spread: They were flashed from a sheriff's deputy's phone screen to a bartender in Norwalk. They were shown to firefighters and their spouses during an awards gala at a hotel in Universal City in what amounted, one witness said, to a "party trick."
County lawyers countered these claims, citing there were legitimate reasons for first responders to take and receive the photos. The images, they say, were never published online or in the media – nor were they seen by the victims' families because of swift work by sheriff and fire leaders in tamping down their spread.
"This is the pictures case and there are no pictures," Mira Hashmall, an attorney representing the county, repeated several times in her closing argument.
But attorneys for Vanessa Bryant and Chris Chester argued it is unknown how far the images spread because the county did not thoroughly investigate.
Vanessa Bryant's attorney claims the county has "no idea who had the photos"
It wasn't until most of the involved deputies had received new phones that officials hired a firm 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.
In their closing statements, Vanessa Bryant and Chris Chester's attorneys called into question 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 was at odds with the testimony of other witnesses.
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 surface, he'd probably hear nine different answers.
And that means that for the rest of Bryant and Chester's lives, one of two things will happen: The photos will surface, or they will live in fear about when that day might come, Lavoie said.
Chester's attorney Jerry Jackson asked the jury to award Vanessa Bryant and Chris Chester up to $75 million in combined damages for their emotional distress. Bryant's attorneys did not specify a figure.
"You can't award too much money for what they went through," Jackson said. "What they went through is inhuman and inhumane," he said, gesturing toward the county, "and they did it."
Cover photo: Patrick T. FALLON / AFP