Los Angeles, CA – A jury awarded $30 million in damages on Wednesday to the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Los Angeles County over the improper taking and sharing of pictures from the fatal helicopter crash which claimed the lives of NBA star Kobe Bryant and eight others in 2020.
Bryant’s widow, Vanessa Bryant, was initially awarded $16 million by the jury, but a juror pointed out an error in the verdict, according to Yahoo Sports. It was initially the intent of the jury that plaintiffs Vanessa Bryant and Christopher Chester split $30 million in damages.
After the juror pointed out the error, Vanessa Bryant agreed and her awarded damages were reduced to $15 million.
Kobe Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, died on Jan. 26, 2020, when the helicopter flying them and six friends to a basketball tournament at Mamba Academy in Thousand Oaks crashed into a Los Angeles County hillside.
LASD Sheriff Alex Villanueva initially expressed horror when he learned that five full-time deputies and three reservists had been involved in taking graphic photographs of the mangled wreckage in the wake of the helicopter crash, KMSB reported.
“I was horrified,” Sheriff Villanueva said. “I just felt betrayed by my own deputies.”
“It’s such a hard thing to do as a first responder, go to a scene of such a horrific accident, talking to the families, three families that were there at the Lost Hills station, personally, and their concerns about privacy, and how we could make the day better for them if any way possible,” the sheriff continued. “And to have this happen, it was heartbreaking.”
The deputies were sent to the scene to secure the crash site – not to take photographs.
“They had no place to be taking any photographs of anything,” Sheriff Villanueva told KMSB.
According to KCAL, one of the deputies who took photos of the wreckage and human remains was a trainee.
He allegedly later showed the images to a girl he was trying to impress at a bar.
The bartender overheard the exchange and filed an online complaint about what the deputy had allegedly done, KCAL reported.
All eight of the involved deputies were placed under internal investigation, according to KMSB.
And the sheriff promised all the pictures had been ordered to be destroyed.
The only people authorized to take pictures of the crash scene were personnel from the coroner’s office and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), KMSB reported.
But at the time, Sheriff Villanueva said that LASD policy did not specifically prohibit first responders from taking photos of accident scenes.
Bryant’s widow, Vanessa Bryant, filed a lawsuit against the county and the sheriff’s department seeking damages for negligence and invasion of privacy for the deputies sharing the images of the victims’ remains, KTLA reported.
She was joined in the lawsuit by Chester, whose wife and daughter were also killed in the crash.
On Aug. 16, LASD Deputy Michael Russell testified that he got the crash scene pictures from LASD Deputy Joey Cruz, the trainee who had been caught showing them around at a bar, TMZ reported.
Deputy Russell said that the next day, he shared copies of the crash pictures with Santa Clarita County Sheriff’s Deputy Ben Sanchez while the two were playing “Call of Duty” together online.
He admitted that he knew he shouldn’t have shared the pictures, TMZ reported.
The deputy testified that he had received a write-up in his file as punishment.
Deputy Cruz also testified in court and admitted to having shown the gruesome pictures to the bartender, TMZ reported.
He testified that he did it to relieve stress and that he was remorseful for his actions.
“He’s a close friend that I vent to… I took it too far, something I shouldn’t have done,” Deputy Cruz said on the stand.
Vanessa Bryant left the courtroom for part of Deputy Cruz’s testimony, TMZ reported.
Retired Los Angeles County Fire Captain Brian Jordan walked off the stand three times while he was testifying, CNN reported.
Jordan’s attorney told CNN that his client was suffering from “a medical condition associated with his viewing of the crash scene and it causes him to suffer trauma.”
He testified that he didn’t remember being led around by a deputy and doing the crash site photography on the day Bryant died, CNN reported.
Jordan said he had blocked the day from his memory since he retired in 2021.
“The way the whole scene looked, that’s going to haunt me forever, and excuse me cause I’m about to take another break,” the retired fire official said at one point during questioning.
Jordan is not accused of having inappropriately shared the crash scene photos, CNN reported.
“The only reason I’m sitting here is because someone threw my name into this whole thing,” he testified.
He said he was asked by a supervisor to take the pictures that day as part of the fire department’s response to the crash, CNN reported.
“Maybe that was the day I should have been insubordinate,” Jordan testified.
The federal civil lawsuit filed by Bryant’s wife accused the county and the sheriff’s department invaded her privacy and failed to fully contain the spread of the graphic photos, causing her to live in fear they will be leaked online at some point in the future, CNN reported.
Vanessa Bryant and Chester will each be awarded $1.5 million from LASD for emotional distress, $7.5 million from LASD for future suffering, and $6 million from Los Angeles County Fire Department for total emotional suffering, according to Yahoo Sports.
Vanessa Bryant has stated she will donate the money to the Mamba & Mambacita Sports Foundation to provide funding and sports programming to underserved athletes.