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Vanessa Bryant awarded $16 million in civil suit over crash photos

A federal jury awarded Vanessa Bryant, widow of the NBA star Kobe Bryant, $16 million in damages on Aug. 24 over leaked photos of the 2020 helicopter crash. (Video: Reuters)
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LOS ANGELES — A federal jury awarded Vanessa Bryant, widow of Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, $16 million on Wednesday, finding that Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies and fire officials had violated the civil rights of the loved ones of Bryant, his daughter Gianna and other victims of a 2020 helicopter crash by taking and circulating macabre photos of the accident that killed nine.

The jury also ordered that the county pay Chris Chester, Bryant’s fellow plaintiff in the suit whose wife, Sarah, and daughter, Payton, also were killed in the crash, $15 million.

Bryant and Chester both testified in the 10-day trial, telling how learning of the existence of the photos set back their grieving process and caused them to live in fear that the images will one day surface on social media.

Bryant said in her court testimony that as difficult as the court case was for her in that it aired private details about the accident and her grief, she found it worth it: “I’m willing to go through hell and back to get justice for my husband and daughter.”

A timeline of Vanessa Bryant’s lawsuit against Los Angeles County

Bryant, who was joined in court Wednesday by her oldest daughter, Natalia, cried when the verdict was read and then left the courthouse without addressing the media. She later posted a photo to Instagram of herself with her late husband and daughter, along with the caption: “All for you! I love you! JUSTICE for Kobe and Gigi!”

In a statement, Mira Hashmall, an attorney at the law firm that represented Los Angeles County in defending the suit, referred to the financial award Bryant and Chester had sought. “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,” Hashmall said. “We will be discussing next steps with our client. Meanwhile, we hope the Bryant and Chester families continue to heal from their tragic loss.”

Laurie Levenson, a professor of law at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, called it a “significant verdict” in a case in which the county struggled with embarrassing trial revelations and the task of cross-examining the widow of one of the city’s most beloved sports stars.

“Emotional distress doesn’t have a calculator,” Levenson said in reference to the jury’s job in determining an award in this case. “The county would love to argue that the harm wasn’t that bad. That might fly if you don’t have Vanessa Bryant testifying.”

The verdict was a rejection of the defense advanced by county attorneys and officials, who argued in court that deputies and firefighters who used cellphones to take photos of the accident scene and then shared them — including at a bar and a gala — did so as part of their official duties.

Vanessa Bryant says she lives 'in fear' that Kobe Bryant crash photos will go viral

The lawsuit concerned dozens of photos taken at the rugged crash site in the hills of Calabasas, Calif. It first emerged that deputies and firefighters were circulating such photos after a citizen filed a complaint with the sheriff’s office that a deputy was showing off an image of Kobe Bryant’s “decapitated body” at a bar.

Bryant and Chester each said that they had no confidence in county assurances that the photos, which included close-ups of body parts, had all been located and erased. The testimony last week of Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who had offered his deputies “amnesty” in return for deleting the photos from their phones, appeared to show the limitation of the county’s knowledge as to whether the photos were still circulating.

After Villanueva said he believed the photos were all deleted, he was then confronted on the stand with the information that one of his deputies had Airdropped dozens of the images to a fire captain who was never identified.

The sheriff then said he was only “pretty sure” the photos were gone and would not resurface — but when challenged further by attorneys for Bryant and Chester, he appeared to throw up his hands on the matter. “God knows,” he said. “And that’s about it.”

A representative for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department declined to comment on the verdict Wednesday evening, saying that the department would issue a statement later. The Los Angeles County Fire Department did not respond to a request for comment.