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Vanessa Bryant awarded $16 million in trial over Kobe Bryant crash photos

The lawyer for the NBA superstar's widow said she suffered undue emotional stress after she learned county personnel took cellphone pictures of human remains as “souvenirs.”
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LOS ANGELES — A federal jury awarded the widow of NBA superstar Kobe Bryant $16 million in damages over leaked photographs of the site of the helicopter crash that killed her husband and one of their daughters in 2020, which first responders snapped 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 who took and shared photos of the remains of Kobe Bryant and their 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, invaded her privacy and caused her emotional distress.

The federal jury deliberated for 4½ hours before it reached the verdict. Bryant cried quietly as it was read.

She posted a photo of herself with her husband and their daughter on social media shortly after the verdict, writing: "All for you! I love you! JUSTICE for Kobe and Gigi!"

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 who were killed when their helicopter crashed north of Los Angeles.

The jury awarded Chester $15 million in damages.

“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,” said Mira Hashmall, a partner at the Miller Barondess law firm who is lead outside counsel for Los Angeles County in the case.

Lawyers for Bryant and Chester argued that both plaintiffs suffered undue emotional stress after they learned that 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 Los Angeles 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 she learned that 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 one another at an awards banquet and that others shared them with their spouses.

An attorney for the county said that the photos were taken because they were essential to assess the difficult-to-reach crash site in the mountains above Malibu and that Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva demanded that they all be deleted after he learned 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 to confirm whether all the leaked photos had been deleted.

No photos have emerged publicly, but 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.