Smoke from helicopter crash
Smoke from the helicopter crash north of Malibu. Courtesy Los Angeles Sheriff

A federal jury Wednesday ordered Los Angeles County to pay $31 million in damages over the actions of first-responders who snapped and shared gruesome photos from the scene of the 2020 helicopter crash that killed Laker legend Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven other people.

The damages were awarded to Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, and co-plaintiff Chris Chester, whose wife Sarah and 13-year-old daughter Payton also died in the Jan. 26, 2020, crash on a Calabasas hillside. The jury awarded Bryant $16 million and Chester $15 million.

Jurors in downtown Los Angeles reached their verdict after roughly four and a half hours of deliberations. Vanessa Bryant wept as the verdict was announced. A short time after leaving the courthouse, she posted a photo of herself with Kobe and daughter Gianna, with the caption, “All for you! I love you! JUSTICE for Kobe and Gigi!”

The damages awarded to the plaintiffs cover past pain and suffering and future emotional damage. The jury found that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles County Fire Department violated Bryant and Chester’s constitutional rights.

While the jury held the sheriff’s department liable for maintaining a practice of sharing photos taken at accident or crime scenes, the county fire department was not found to have such a custom.

The jury’s verdict came one day after what would have been Kobe Bryant’s 44th birthday, and it happened on “Mamba Day” in Los Angeles, which celebrates his life each year on Aug. 24, or 8-24, the two numbers he wore during his 20-year career with the Lakers.

An attorney for Chester had asked the panel to compel the county to pay a total of $75 million split between Kobe Bryant’s widow and Chester for pain and suffering engendered when the pictures were snapped and displayed for no good reason to a bartender, attendees of an awards ceremony and sent by a sheriff’s deputy to a colleague while they were playing a video game.

The county’s lead lawyer argued during her summation that the photos have not surfaced in public in the 2 1/2 years since the tragedy, which proves they have been permanently deleted.

“This is a photo case, but there are no photos,” the attorney told jurors in Los Angeles federal court. “There’s a simple truth that cannot be ignored — there’s been no public dissemination.”

The plaintiffs argued that county personnel took graphic cell-phone pictures of human remains at the remote Calabasas crash site for their own amusement as “souvenirs” and shared them with other law enforcement personnel and members of the public.

The county has not disputed that some photos were shared with a small number of deputies and firefighters. Defense attorneys maintained that all images taken by first responders were destroyed on orders of the sheriff and fire chief, and no longer exist in any form. The photos never entered the public domain or appeared on the internet, the county insisted.

L.A. County attorney Mira Hashmall said that while three employees broke confidentiality policies, Bryant and Chester’s privacy rights regarding their loved ones’ remains were not violated since the crash-site images never leaked out.

“We’re not talking about a clear right, like the right to remain silent,” she said in her closing argument, adding that picture-taking does not equal public dissemination. “It’s not a basis for a claim. … It’s a county issue, not a constitutional issue.”

However, Bryant and Chester insisted they have no evidence that the pictures won’t someday surface.

In tearful testimony, Kobe’s widow took the stand last week, telling the court she “lives in fear” of coming across leaked photos showing the broken bodies of her loved ones someday on the internet.

“It’s like COVID. Once it’s spread, you can’t get it back,” she told the court.

The nine-member jury began deliberating just before lunchtime Wednesday.

In discussing monetary damages due each plaintiff, attorney Jerry Jackson said that if the jury felt the proposed $75 million was too high, “you should reduce it. If you think it’s too low, you should increase it.”

For what the plaintiffs have gone through, and can expect in terms of future emotional distress, “you can’t stack it too high,” Jackson said Tuesday.

Plaintiffs attorneys argued that the county had no policies or training in January 2020 that directly addressed the taking of photos of dead bodies by deputies and firefighters.

Hashmall, though, countered that both departments definitely had policies that addressed such behavior. She told the jury that when two private citizens reported incidents in which employees were displaying cell phone photos of the crash at a bar in Norwalk and at the Golden Mike awards gala, the county departments immediately took action.

“Mistakes by a few personnel is not the basis for millions and millions of dollars in damages,” the defense lawyer said.

As for Bryant and Chester’s emotional distress claim, the defense attorney said “there are probably many things” that trigger such a reaction.

“What’s not understandable is trying to pin all the blame on the county when those pictures did not get out,” she said. “That sadness and grief is about the loss of their loved ones. It can’t be about pictures they’ve never seen. A court of law requires evidence not emotion.”

Along with Chester and Bryant’s loved ones, the crash killed Alyssa Altobelli, 14; Keri Altobelli, 46; John Altobelli, 56; Christina Mauser, 38; and pilot Ara Zobayan, 50.

Two families separately settled with the county over the photos for $1.25 million each. All of the victims’ families reached a settlement with the helicopter company for the crash, but those terms remain confidential.

Updated at 5:26 p.m. Aug. 24, 2022

City News Service contributed to this article.