A jury awarded the widowed Vanessa Bryant of NBA superstar Kobe Bryant $16 million in damages over leaked photographs of the January 2020 helicopter crash site snapped by first responders and shared with members of the public.
The nine jurors who returned the unanimous verdict agreed with Vanessa Bryant and her attorneys that deputies and firefighters taking and sharing photos of the remains of Kobe Bryant and their 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, invaded her privacy and brought her emotional distress.
Vanessa Bryant and co-plaintiff Chris Chester sued Los Angeles County for unspecified millions of dollars over the photographs, which included graphic images of human remains.
Chester’s wife, Sarah, and daughter, Payton, 13, were among nine people killed when their helicopter crashed north of Los Angeles.
The jury awarded Chester $15 million in damages.
Lawyers for Bryant and Chester argued that both plaintiffs suffered undue emotional stress after learning county employees took cellphone pictures of human remains as “souvenirs” and shared them with colleagues and members of the public.
Closing arguments began Tuesday, on what would have been Kobe Bryant’s 44th birthday.
On Wednesday, Bryant walked into court wearing all white and holding the hands of her eldest daughter, Natalia, and close family friend Sydney Leroux, an Olympic gold medalist and Gianna’s favorite soccer player. She was also joined by Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka and his wife.
Bryant endured two weeks of emotional testimony, at times wiping away tears and leaving the courtroom when graphic or painful evidence was introduced.
Bryant testified for more than three hours Friday, sobbing on the stand as she described the anguish and anger she felt after learning first responders had leaked the images.
“I felt like I wanted to run down the block and scream,” she told the court, her body shaking with emotion. “I can’t escape my body. I can’t escape what I feel.”
Evidence presented at trial showed that a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy shared a photo of Kobe Bryant’s body to a bartender, spurring an official complaint from another bar patron who witnessed the exchange. Evidence also showed that firefighters passed around photos with each other at an awards banquet, and others shared them with their spouses.
An attorney for the county said the photos had been taken because they were essential for assessing the difficult-to-reach crash site in the mountains above Malibu, and that Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva demanded they all be deleted after learning they had been shared.
Villanueva admitted in court last week that his department’s policies were insufficient to address the privacy concerns at the center of the case. He said there was “no playbook” for first responders using their personal devices to snap crash site photos.
Villanueva, who is up for re-election this year, also acknowledged he had no way of confirming whether all the leaked photos had been deleted.
No photos have emerged publicly, but Vanessa Bryant said she lives in fear of seeing them one day.
The helicopter was heading from Orange County to Gianna’s basketball game at Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks when heavy fog and low visibility doomed the flight.