LOS ANGELES (CN) — After less than five hours of deliberations, a federal jury on Wednesday awarded a combined $31 million to plaintiffs Vanessa Bryant and Christopher Chester — $16 million for Bryant, $15 million for Chester — in their lawsuit against Los Angeles County over leaked photos from the 2020 helicopter crash that killed their spouses, daughters and five others.
Of the award, $19 million will be paid out by the LA County Sheriff's Department, the rest by the county's fire department.
After the verdict was read, Vanessa Bryant, crying quietly behind her black mask, turned around in her chair and nodded to the jury in thanks.
The helicopter crash killed LA Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, the pilot, and six others, including Chester's wife Sarah and daughter Payton, who was on a basketball team with Gianna. Their lawsuit against the county stemmed from reports that photographs of their loved ones' remains were showed around at bar in Norwalk. That story led to revelations that at least one sheriff's deputy and two fire officials had photographed the crash site and had shared those pictures with their colleagues. Eventually, some of the photos were shown to a bartender in Norwalk. In another incident, a fire department spokesman showed photos to wives and girlfriends of fire officials at an awards dinner.
Bryant and Chester said the public sharing of those images was done callously, as a sort of digital gossip, which violated their loved ones constitutionally protected rights to privacy.
The photographs have never been published. But Bryant, during the trial, said she was "haunted" by the idea that they would one day be made public.
"Either the photographs will surface, and their worst fears will be realized," Bryant's lawyer Craig Lavoie said during his closing argument, "or they'll live in fear for the rest of their lives."
The county meanwhile had argued that the pictures taken at the crash site were done so for professional reasons, to preserve evidence in what may have been a crime scene, to aid rescue efforts and to help top officials assess the situation. Though the photos should never have been shared with the public, they said, those were the result of mistakes made by first responders, and not as the result of department policies.
The plaintiffs based much of their case around the testimony of semi-hostile witnesses — first responders who weren't exactly sympathetic to the lawsuit. Many of these sheriff's deputies and fire officials had acknowledged to internal affairs investigators that they either took or received graphic photos showing human remains. But on the witness stand, many of their stories seemed to have changed. For the most part, these first responders testified that the photos were of the crash site as a whole, and not focused on human remains. The plaintiffs were then forced to argue that their own witnesses were lying, and that the lies were evidence of a cover-up.
Though Bryant's attorneys never asked for a specific dollar amount, Chester's lawyer Jerome Jackson suggested that Bryant should be awarded $42.5 million, and his client $32.5 million.
After the verdict, Vanessa Bryant and her attorney Luis Li declined to comment. Jackson thanked the jury and the judge. In a written statement, Hashmall said: "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.”
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