Vanessa Bryant Awarded $16M By Federal Jury: ‘Justice for Kobe and Gigi’
After nearly five hours of deliberation, a federal jury has determined that co-plaintiffs Vanessa Bryant and Christopher Chester are entitled to a total of $31 million after members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s and Fire Departments illegally disseminated photos of Kobe Bryant’s dead body, as well as the bodies of his daughter Gianna and Chester’s wife and daughter.
The verdict arrived on Aug. 24, known to fans as Kobe Day in honor of his two Lakers jerseys numbered 8 and 24 — Kobe Day also falls just one day after Bryant’s Aug. 23 birthday.
His widow was awarded $16 million, while Chester was awarded $15 million for emotional distress and a violation of their constitutional rights. Additionally, the National Transportation Safety Board confirmed that the helicopter’s pilot exercised poor judgment by determining it was safe to fly in inclement weather.
According to CNN, the jury that determined their restitution listened for 11 days as multiple LA County officers and firefighters admitted to taking and sharing the photos with colleagues, friends, family, and, in some cases, total strangers. One of the deputies on the stand admitted to showing the photos to two people at a bar, while another claimed he shared the photos with another deputy while playing “Call of Duty.”
Both plaintiffs said they live in constant fear of the photos surfacing online or being disseminated to more members of the general public. “I felt like I wanted to run down the block and scream,” Bryant said on the stand, according to NBC News. “I can’t escape my body. I can’t escape what I feel.”
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who is seeking re-election this year, claims he demanded the photos be destroyed and deleted after hearing that they’d been shared, but admitted that the county has “no playbook” or policies determining how first responders are to use their personal devices when photographing a crash site.
He also confirmed that there is no real way of knowing whether the photos had been deleted, especially since one deputy sent them to a firefighter who has yet to be identified. A total of 1,250 photos were taken of the scene, with 300 of them featuring graphic images of the victims, despite nobody asking LA County sheriffs to take any pictures, reports The Root.
The jury was also tasked with defining the word “public” in relation to the case. The plaintiffs made the case that any officer or citizen who was not directly involved with the initial investigation should be considered a member of the public. LA County attorney Mira Hashmall conceded that, while it was wrong to share the photos, the officer involved had been reprimanded by the Sheriff’s office, meaning it was not “a constitutional issue,” but “a county issue.”
Bryant was seen breaking down in tears as the jury read their verdict. Her attorney, Luis Li, said, “This case has always been about accountability,” adding, “And now the jury has unanimously spoken.” Li also praised the two whistleblowers who came forward, saying, “But for those people, we may never have heard of this…There’s another group of people who saw something terribly wrong. You…Your turn to stand up and deliver accountability.”
Hashmall released a statement following the verdict that expressed her disappointment with the jury’s decision. “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.”
She continued, “We will be discussing next steps with our client. Meanwhile, we hope the Bryant and Chester families continue to heal from their tragic loss.” Hashmall’s argument in favor of the county was based around the fact that the trial was a “pictures case with no pictures,” confirming that the images had not been released to the public and that even the plaintiffs themselves had never seen them.
In her closing argument, Hashmall said, “No pictures is good. No pictures means no public dissemination … no risk of other people making mistakes,” despite Sheriff Villanueva confirming that there’s no way of knowing if the pictures had actually been deleted.
Nine months after Kobe Bryant’s death in January 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Kobe Bryant Act into law, making it illegal for any first responder to share images of dead bodies at a crime scene “for any purpose other than an official law enforcement purpose.”