ABOVE PHOTO: Vanessa Bryant, left, and soccer player Sydney Leroux leave the Federal Court after witness testimony has concluded in the trial of Bryant’s federal negligence lawsuit against the county over photos taken by first responders at the scene of the helicopter crash that killed her husband Kobe, her daughter and seven other people, on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022 in Los Angeles. (Ringo Chiu via AP)
By Andrew Dalton
LOS ANGELES — A federal jury found Wednesday that Los Angeles County must pay Kobe Bryant’s widow $16 million for emotional distress caused by deputies and firefighters sharing photos of the bodies of the NBA star and his daughter taken at the site of the 2020 helicopter crash that killed them.
The nine jurors who returned the unanimous verdict agreed with Vanessa Bryant and her attorneys that the photos of the remains of Kobe Bryant and their 13-year-old daughter Gianna invaded her privacy and brought her emotional distress.
The jury deliberated for 4 1/2 hours before reaching the verdict. Vanessa Bryant cried quietly as it was read.
An attorney for the county declined comment on the verdict outside the courtroom.
The pictures were shared mostly between employees of the LA County sheriff’s and fire departments including by some who were playing video games and attending an awards banquet. They were also seen by some of their spouses and in one case by a bartender at a bar where a deputy was drinking.
Vanessa Bryant tearfully testified during the 11-day trial that news of the photos compounded her still-raw grief a month after losing her husband and daughter, and that she still has panic attacks at the thought that they might still be out there.
“I live in fear every day of being on social media and these popping up,” she testified. “I live in fear of my daughters being on social media and these popping up.”
Her co-plaintiff Chris Chester, whose wife and daughter were also among the nine people killed in the crash, was awarded $15 million.
Vanessa 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.
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.
Kobe Bryant, the former Lakers star, five-time NBA champion and member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, was traveling with Gianna and seven others to a youth basketball game when the helicopter they were aboard crashed into hills in Calabasas west of Los Angeles on Jan. 26, 2020.
Federal safety officials blamed pilot error for the crash.
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.