LOS ANGELES (KABC) — A federal jury Wednesday ordered Los Angeles County to pay $31 million in damages over the actions of deputies and firefighters who took and shared gruesome photos from the scene of the 2020 helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people.
The damages were awarded to Bryant's widow, Vanessa, and co-plaintiff Chris Chester, whose wife Sarah and 13-year-old daughter Payton also died in the Jan. 26, 2020, crash in Calabasas.
Vanessa Bryant was awarded $16 million and Chris Chester was awarded $15 million.
The jury deliberated for 4 1/2 hours before reaching the verdict. Vanessa Bryant cried quietly as it was read.
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Chester and Bryant sued the county in federal court for negligence and invasion of privacy over photos of human remains taken at the scene and shared by first responders.
Bryant and Chester alleged mental anguish over the thought that one day in the future, those photos will turn up in public.
Bryant's attorneys did not give jurors a dollar amount they thought their client deserved, but Chester's attorney gave them suggested guidelines that would have meant tens of millions for each plaintiff.
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After the verdicts were read, Bryant and Chester hugged in the courtroom. She also hugged her attorney.
Bryant did not speak after leaving court.
She later posted on Instagram a picture of herself, Kobe and Gianna with a caption that read: “All for you! I love you! JUSTICE for Kobe and Gigi! #Betonyourself #MambaDay 8-24-22 #MambaMentality.”
Along with Chester and Bryant's loved ones, the crash killed Alyssa Altobelli, 14; Keri Altobelli, 46; John Altobelli, 56; Christina Mauser, 38; and pilot Ara Zobayan, 50.
Two other families separately settled with the county over the photos for $1.25 million each. All of the victims' families reached a settlement with the helicopter company over the crash, but those terms remain confidential.
For 10 days jurors heard testimony from L.A. County firefighters and sheriff's personnel — some accused of taking the photos, others of receiving them.
The county's lead lawyer argued during her summation that the photos have not surfaced in public in the 2 1/2 years since the tragedy, which proves they have been permanently deleted.
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“This is a photo case, but there are no photos,” the attorney told jurors in Los Angeles federal court. “There's a simple truth that cannot be ignored — there's been no public dissemination.”
Vanessa Bryant's lawyer Luis Li told jurors that the close-up photos had no official or investigative purpose, and were mere “visual gossip” shared out of a gruesome curiosity.
County attorney J. Mira Hashmall argued during the trial that the photos were a necessary tool for assessing the situation.
She acknowledged that they should not have been shared with everyone who saw them. But she emphasized that the photos had never appeared publicly, and had never even been seen by the plaintiffs. She said that meant that Sheriff Alex Villanueva and other officials had taken decisive and effective action when they ordered those who had the photos to delete them.
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L.A. County provided the following statement from Hashmall, its lead outside counsel in the case:
“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.”
The jury returned its verdict on Kobe Bryant Day, which is celebrated on Aug. 24 because it uses both of his jersey numbers — 8 and 24 — and is the day after his birthday. Tuesday would have been Kobe's 44th birthday.
City News Service and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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