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Why Vanessa Bryant won her civil trial over Kobe crash photos: What we know

USA TODAY SPORTS 8/25/2022 Brent Schrotenboer, USA TODAY
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LOS ANGELES – This is what victory looked like Wednesday for Vanessa Bryant after 11 days of a gruesome civil trial against Los Angeles County:    

Tears tinged with relief. Hugs with attorneys. And then a final trip down the elevator from the seventh floor of the federal courthouse where she held hands with her eldest daughter, Natalia.

The verdict came down in her favor – $16 million awarded to her by the jury.

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But the win also came at a cost. At different points in the trial, she broke down crying, including during closing arguments on Wednesday. Bryant, the widow of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, also felt compelled to stay out of the courtroom at times to avoid hearing graphic testimony about what happened to the bodies of her husband and daughter Gianna after they died in a helicopter crash in January 2020.

Vanessa Bryant, center, leaves a federal courthouse with her daughter, Natalia, center left, and soccer player Sydney Leroux, center right. © Jae C. Hong, AP Vanessa Bryant, center, leaves a federal courthouse with her daughter, Natalia, center left, and soccer player Sydney Leroux, center right.

What does the verdict mean?

The award has nothing to do with the crash itself. It instead is to compensate her for her past and future emotional distress after she accused county sheriff’s and fire department employees of taking, sharing and displaying photos of her family members’ remains from the crash site without having a legitimate business reason for it.

The nine-member jury unanimously found this conduct violated the constitutional rights of Bryant and fellow plaintiff Chris Chester, who lost his wife and daughter in the same crash.

The jury awarded a total of $31 million to the two plaintiffs, including $15 million for Chester. The county is on the hook for this, pending any appeal, with the sheriff’s department liable for $19 million and the fire department liable for $12 million.

Both Bryant and Chester brought the case to trial after filing lawsuits against the county several months after the accident. They testified that their grief and anxiety were compounded after learning that photos of their deceased family members apparently had been taken and passed along as souvenirs or objects of amusement.

They also testified they lived in fear of these photos re-emerging to terrorize them and their families even though the county said the photos were all deleted shortly after the crash.

Was this what Vanessa Bryant wanted?

Bryant posted a photo of her with her late husband and daughter on Instagram after the verdict.

“All for you!” she wrote. “I love you! JUSTICE for Kobe and Gigi!”

She noted it was “Mamba Day,” also known as Kobe Bryant Day in Los Angeles because the date was 8-24, which represents his Los Angeles Lakers jersey numbers. It also came a day after what would have been Kobe Bryant's 44th birthday on Tuesday.

Bryant and her attorney, Luis Li, never asked for a specific dollar amount from the jury, unlike the attorney for Chester, Jerome Jackson, who urged the jury to award both plaintiffs a combined $75 million. Bryant pressed her case to trial to get “accountability” from the county defendants, even though she could have settled the case and avoided a grueling trial.

Two other families who lost loved ones in the same crash also sued the county over the photos but agreed to end their lawsuits last year in exchange for $1.25 million payments each from the county.

Bryant ended up getting a verdict that symbolized the accountability she sought as well as a much higher award.

“This case has always been about accountability,” Li said. “And now the jury has unanimously spoken.” 

Why did Vanessa Bryant win?

Only the jurors can say for sure, and they were not immediately available for interviews. But Bryant had several factors working in her favor. She’s a celebrity and highly sympathetic figure as a widow of a beloved Los Angeles sports icon. And she was fighting against a large government bureaucracy that was accused of egregiously insensitive behavior.

This made for a mismatch of sorts since the start of the trial Aug. 10, even though the jury is only supposed to look at the evidence of the case, not the emotions of it.

Bryant also was effective on the witness stand for nearly three hours Aug. 19, when she displayed her grief all over again.

Asked by her attorney what she thinks about at night, Bryant gave a sad summary.

“About people sharing photographs of Kobe,” she said. “About people taking pictures of Kobe and Gianna. About people uncovering my loved ones to do it. About people laughing about their conditions.”

Chester, likewise, had testified about his hardships and fears, including drinking to cope. He told the jury his attorney even recently “received a phone call from a woman saying that she had seen or knew where the pictures were” and knew where to show them for a fee.

What hurt the county’s case?

The testimony of certain county employees who were implicated in this case was in many ways the opposite of Bryant’s and Chester’s. Some squirmed and gave conflicting testimony when having to answer questions under oath on the witness stand just a few feet in front of both plaintiffs.

One now-retired fire captain, Brian Jordan, claimed he didn’t remember being at the crash scene except for being ordered to take photos there by current acting fire chief Anthony Marrone, who refuted that notion in testimony. Jordan even stepped down off the witness stand three times in distress to take a break, including right after he was asked by Li whether “Kobe Bryant’s remains were in the pictures you took.”

Another witness was a former bartender who said his friend, a sheriff’s deputy trainee named Joey Cruz, offered to show him a photo of Bryant’s dead body two days after the crash. Surveillance video from the restaurant shows the two looking at Cruz’s phone that night and laughing afterward.

The former bartender denied laughing about the crash victims’ bodies even though they were looking at crash-scene photos in the same general sequence as the laughter.

“You gotta be psycho to do that,” he said.

The fact that the photos were deleted also hurt the county in different ways, even though the deletions were designed to keep them from spreading further. Jurors were told they could presume the deleted evidence would have been unfavorable against the county, which also came with the strong smell of a consciousness of guilt.

What rights were violated?

It is the constitutional right to control the death images of family members, stemming from the 14th Amendment right to due process, as recognized in a federal precedent entitled Marsh vs. the County of San Diego. In that case, a former county prosecutor disseminated an autopsy photo of a woman’s dead son to the news media.

Under this standard, jurors were asked to determine if the photos were publicly disseminated and whether the county employees’ conduct “shocked the conscience.”

They were then asked to determine whether the county was liable as an organization under the so-called Monell doctrine, in which local governments can be held responsible when their employees deprive others of their constitutional rights. The plaintiffs argued the county failed to prevent such violations by not having adequate policies and training in place for its employees.

How did the jury pick those dollar amounts?

Only they can say. Before they went into deliberations Wednesday, U.S. District Judge John F. Walter told the jurors “no fixed standard exists for deciding the amount of these damages.”

“You must use your judgment to decide a reasonable amount based on the evidence and your common sense,” he said.

The jury awarded Bryant $2.5 million for past emotional distress from the sheriff’s department and $1 million from the fire department. For future emotional distress, it awarded her $7.5 million from the sheriff and $5 million from the fire department. Chester was awarded the same except $1 million less from the sheriff’s department for past emotional distress.

What comes next?

The county could appeal in an attempt to protect taxpayer money, arguing the law was not correctly applied in this case. Mira Hashmall, the county’s lead outside counsel, issued a statement after the verdict.

“We will be discussing next steps with our client,” she said. “Meanwhile, we hope the Bryant and Chester families continue to heal from their tragic loss.” 

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why Vanessa Bryant won her civil trial over Kobe crash photos: What we know

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