A jury deliberated less than four hours Wednesday before handing Vanessa Bryant a resounding victory in her case alleging Los Angeles County sheriff and fire officials violated her constitutional rights by snapping and sharing graphic “souvenir” photos showing the remains of her NBA superstar husband Kobe Bryant and 13-year-old daughter Gianna after their helicopter crash in January 2020.
Bryant broke down in quiet sobs as she heard that the jury of nine awarded her $16 million for her past and future pain and suffering. The jurors then awarded her co-plaintiff, Chris Chester, $15 million.
The jury found that the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department violated both Bryant’s and Chester’s constitutional rights to privacy through failures related to “policies and training” as well as having a “practice or custom” of sharing photos of dead people.
Jurors awarded Bryant $2.5 million in past pain and suffering from the Sheriff’s Department and $7.5 million in future damages. Chester received $1.5 million in past damages and $7.5 million in future damages related to the actions of sheriff’s deputies.
The county did prevail in terms of the jury’s finding that the L.A. County Fire Department does not suffer from the same custom of sharing unauthorized photos of deceased victims. But the jury found the fire department still failed in terms of its policies or training. Jurors awarded Bryant and Chester $1 million each in terms of past damages owed by the fire department and $5 million each in terms of future damages.
“All for you! I love you! JUSTICE for Kobe and Gigi!” Bryant wrote in an Instagram post after the verdict. She included the hashtag #Betonyourself and a mention of the incredible coincidence that the jury’s decision fell on Kobe Bryant Day, the day recognized in Los Angeles and Orange County as a commemoration of Kobe’s career and the philanthropic work of his family. (The date was chosen because of the numbers on Kobe’s jerseys, 8 and 24.)
Vanessa Bryant, 40, sued L.A. County eight months after the crash that killed nine, saying she suffered severe emotional distress and became physically “ill” over the thought of strangers “gawking” at grisly images of her husband and daughter. Her claim was later consolidated with a similar suit from Chester, an Orange County financial adviser who lost his wife Sarah, and the couple’s 13-year-old daughter, Payton, in the tragedy.
“I just want to thank the judge and the jury for a very fair trial,” Chester’s lawyer Jerry Jackson told Rolling Stone as he left the courthouse.
After hugging her lawyer Luis Li outside an elevator bank inside the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, Bryant declined to comment as she negotiated her way through a throng of media with her eldest daughter Natalia by her side.
During closing arguments Wednesday morning, Natalia sat in the front row and leaned her head on the shoulder of soccer star Sydney Leroux at one point. Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka and his wife sat on the other side of Natalia and averted their eyes when media footage showing the helicopter wreckage was shown on several screens.
“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,” lead county lawyer Mira Hashmall, a partner at the Miller Barondess law firm, said in statement after the verdict. “We will be discussing next steps with our client. Meanwhile, we hope the Bryant and Chester families continue to heal from their tragic loss.”
In some of her last words to the jurors Wednesday morning, Hashmall argued in vain that Bryant and Chester had failed to prove two necessary elements of their case: that “public dissemination” of the unauthorized photos ever occurred; and that the documented display of the photos by a deputy at a bar and a fire official at an awards gala “shocks the conscience.”
Hashmall said the county shouldn’t be on the hook for the million in damages because the “mistakes of a couple” employees “who had lapses in judgment” didn’t reflect the overwhelming majority of county first responders. She said there’s no evidence the close-up photos of victims’ remains taken by Sheriff’s Deputy Doug Johnson and now-retired L.A. County Fire Captain Brian Jordan have ever surfaced online, ever been shared with the media or ever been seen by Bryant and Chester.
“It’s a pictures case with no pictures,” Hashmall said over and over. She argued any images shared by Deputy Joey Cruz at the Baja California Bar & Grill in Norwalk, Calif., or Firefighter Captain Tony Imbrenda at an awards dinner involved instances where the images never left the county employees’ handheld devices. She argued the men were simply processing and commenting on their difficult jobs when they showed the images to others.
“Deputy Cruz made a mistake,” she said, claiming Cruz was “shook in the head” by what he witnessed at the crash site and sought solace from his bartender friend. “Does it shock the conscience that he needed to talk? Is that something depraved and cruel? Or is that just human error?”
She said Capt. Imbrenda admitted to the jury he “made a mistake,” but that he was adamant whatever he showed to others “never left his phone, never left his hand.” She argued that first responders take “pictures as part of how they get better” at their jobs. She offered a hypothetical where a paramedic might think twice before snapping a crash scene photo to help inform emergency room staff if county guidelines become too stringent.
Bryant’s lawyer Luis Li vigorously disputed Hashmall’s argument in his final words to the jury.
He said all Bryant had to prove was that it’s more likely than not that Deputy Cruz showed his pictures to someone at the bar or that Capt. Imbrenda showed photos of remains to the group that included fellow firefighter Sky Cornell and his girlfriend. Li then reminded jurors about trial testimony claiming that when Cornell walked away from Imbrenda that night, he said words to the effect of, “I can’t believe I’m about to go eat when I just looked at Kobe Bryant’s burned-up body.”
“These are men who shared pictures of deceased loved ones like they were baseball cards,” Li argued. “How long do we want this practice to go on?”
Li said the claims from Bryant and Chester revealed “pure chaos” in terms of the county’s training and guidelines related to sensitive photos of deal people taken by first responders. He said Gianna was “lying in a ravine” and “utterly helpless” when Jordan allegedly hiked down to take photos “for no legitimate purpose.” He then blasted Hashmall for suggesting the underlying lawsuits were misguided.
“It’s almost like they’re gaslighting them,” he said. “Mrs. Bryant is here today to seek justice and accountability for Kobe and Gigi. She is here today to expose the county sheriff’s department and fire department.”
It was Tuesday that Jackson said he believed Vanessa deserved a total of $42.5 million in damages while Chester deserved $32.5 million. He argued in his final rebuttal closing argument Wednesday that Bryant and Chester simply can’t trust assurances that the unauthorized photos have all been deleted, especially considering an internal investigation never located Jordan’s missing hard drive or confirmed the identity of a “phantom fire captain” who received an air drop of 100 photos at the crash scene.
And Jackson reminded jurors that he himself received an voicemail message at his office during the trial from someone purporting to have possession of grisly crash scene photos for sale. He said fear that the images might one day pop up online will haunt Bryant and Chester for the rest of their lives.
“The fear of these photos will ruin every good day and make every bad day worse,” he said.