Kobe Bryant Family Receives $29M Settlement in Photos Case
Vanessa Bryant has agreed to accept a $28.85 million settlement from Los Angeles County in exchange for ending her fight against those she accused of taking and sharing gruesome photos of her dead husband and daughter after dying in a helicopter crash in January 2020.
The settlement includes the $15 million verdict she won against the county after a two-week trial before a civil jury in Los Angeles last year. It also resolves any pending litigation and future claims of Bryant, widow of NBA legend Kobe Bryant. It is subject to court approval and would also cover her children.
“Today marks the successful culmination of Mrs. Bryant’s courageous fight to hold accountable those involved in this grotesque behavior,” her attorney Luis Li said in a statement Tuesday. “She fought for her husband, her daughter and everyone in the community whose deceased family was treated with similar disrespect. We hope that their victory in the process and this agreement will put an end to this practice.”
Why is this happening
Bryant had sued the county several months after the crash, alleging that county sheriff and fire department employees used their personal phones to take and share horrific photos of the crash scene of her daughter Gianna and her husband Kobe. Their attorneys said these first responders had no legitimate business reason to do so and instead were violating their privacy rights by using the photos as souvenirs or entertainment.
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She then took her case to court in August when a nine-person federal jury ruled in favor of her and fellow plaintiff Chris Chester, who lost his wife and daughter in the same accident.
The jury found that the county fire department and sheriff’s departments violated their constitutional rights to control the death pictures of family members, as established by federal precedent under the 14th Amendment. The jury initially awarded Chester $15 million and Bryant $16 million for their past and future emotional distress, although Bryant’s amount was reduced to $15 million after a juror found an error in the sentencing form.
The photos scandal ended up costing the county more than $51 million in settlements, including $19.95 million for Chester and $1.25 million each for two other families who lost loved ones in the same crash.
“We believe the settlement approved by the board in the Bryant case is fair and reasonable,” said a statement from Mira Hashmall, partner at law firm Miller Barondess and lead trial attorney for LA County in the August 2022 federal jury verdict and clarification any outstanding issues relating to pending legal claims in state courts, future claims by the Bryant children and other costs, each party being responsible for its respective attorneys’ fees.
Why these amounts?
Attorneys for both plaintiffs had argued to the jury that this invasion of privacy increased their despair after the tragedy. They said their clients feared those photos would surface again online at any moment, although the county said the photos were never posted online and were deleted shortly after the crash on orders from then-LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
“I live in fear,” Bryant testified at the trial. “I live in fear every day of seeing — being on social media and having these photos pop up, or my 19-year-old being on social media and having these pictures pop up.”
The jury listened and responded with a verdict that compensates them for it. According to court records and judgment forms, the jury intended that each of the $15 million judgments should cover $2.5 million for past emotional distress and $12.5 million each for future emotional distress.
Li, Bryant’s attorney, said Bryant was not seeking a specific dollar amount and instead called for county accountability to put an end to “this despicable and callous behavior.” He said she intends to donate the proceeds from her winning judgment to the Mamba and Mambacita Sports Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting underserved athletes.
Li also told jurors in court that the practice of taking and sharing gruesome crime scene and accident photos has “continued for decades” among law enforcement officials without good reason, although the county said there was no evidence to back it from the sheriff or fire department.
“Let it stop,” he told the jury.
Why she was still influential
After the jury’s verdict, both Bryant and Chester retained some leverage to settle with the county for more than the jury awarded them. Both could have asserted claims by the State of California against the district that were part of their lawsuits but not part of their constitutional rights process in the US District Court. Like Bryant, Chester instead decided to settle with the county to end the litigation, in his case for $19.95 million.
In these cases, the issue was not who was responsible for the crash itself, but rather the actions of county authorities and staff with photos after the crash. In a separate case of culpability in the crash, Bryant and the other families of the crash victims sued the operator of the doomed helicopter and reached a confidential settlement to end that case in 2021.
This case never went to court. But the photo case did in August, when Bryant gave emotional testimony about the fear and concern she felt after learning first responders had improperly shared and displayed those images, including at a restaurant bar two days after the crash.
“These photos are completely different than an autopsy sketch,” Bryant testified in court. “It’s different. I never want to see my babies like that. I don’t think anyone should ever see their family members like that.”
The settlement with Bryant comes several months after the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved $47.6 million to settle five additional cases alleging misconduct by deputies from the same sheriff’s department, including three shootings by deputies became. Four of those cases occurred during the tenure of Sheriff Villanueva, who lost his re-election bid last year after a series of controversies during his four-year tenure.
In addition to this civil lawsuit, the 2020 photo case also led to legislation in California making it a misdemeanor for first responders to take unauthorized photos of the dead at the scene of a crime or accident.
“This settlement now completes all litigation related to the county in connection with the tragic January 2020 helicopter crash,” Hashmall’s statement said. “We hope Ms Bryant and her children continue to heal from their loss.”
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.