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Jury Awards $31M to Vanessa Bryant and Chris Chester in Lawsuit Against LA County Over Fatal Helicopter Crash Photos


Vanessa Bryant leaves the Los Angeles federal courthouse on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2022, with her daughter, Natalia, soccer player Sydney Leroux and her lead lawyer Luis Li. (screenshot via CBS News)

A jury on Wednesday awarded $31 million to Vanessa Bryant and Christopher Chester for Los Angeles County’s mishandling of photos from the helicopter crash that killed their spouses and daughters.

The verdict follows 10 days of testimony in U.S. District Judge John F. Walter’s courtroom about how employees with the sheriff’s and fire departments took and disseminated photographs of human remains at the site of the Jan. 26, 2020 crash that killed Kobe Bryant, daughter Gianna Bryant.

Chester’s wife Sarah Chester and daughter Payton Chester, also died in the crash, as did John Altobelli, his wife, Keri Altobelli, their daughter Alyssa Altobelli, team assistant coach Christina Mauser and pilot Ara Zobayan.

Under the unanimous verdict read shortly after 4 p.m. in Los Angeles, Bryant is due $16 million, with $2.5 million from the sheriff’s department for past suffering and $7.5 million for future suffering. The fire department is to pay her $1 million for past suffering and $5 million for future suffering.

With Chester, the jury awarded him $15 million total: $1.5 million from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for past suffering and $7.5 million for future suffering. The Los Angeles County Fire Department is to pay him $1 million for past suffering and $5 million for future suffering.

It wasn’t a complete loss for the county: After about 4.5 hours of deliberation, jurors found the sheriff’s department has deficient policies and training regarding photos of deceased people as well as a custom or pattern of misusing them, but they only faulted the fire department for deficient policies about photos of deceased people, not also having a custom of misusing them. But the overall findings are a sharp rebuke of the county’s argument that while county employees made mistakes showing the photos at a bar and a gala, the mistakes were not constitutional violations and had been embellished through the lawsuits.

The past damages award for Chester matches what his lawyer, Jerry Jackson, recommended in his closing argument on Tuesday to compensate him for the emotional pain he’s suffered knowing photos of his wife and daughter’s remains were shown as entertainment. For Bryant, it exceeds Jackson’s recommendation by $1 million.

Jackson was less specific when recommending future damages, giving jurors a range of $100,000 to $1 million each year of future life, with Chester’s life expectancy pegged at 30 years and Bryant’s at 40. Chester said if he were a juror, he’d go for $1 million and emphatically told them he didn’t think it was possible to award too much money for the pain Chester and Bryant will experience for the rest of their lives knowing copies of the photos could still publicly surface because the county’s investigation of them was so shoddy. But he also told them he didn’t believe but he told jurors to increase or decrease the numbers as they saw fit.

Jackson had the last word to the jurors on Wednesday, saying in a short and final rebuttal that the conflicting testimony that reveals such a stark failure to implement clear policies and train employees “would be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic” and reminding them they weren’t bound by his recommendation and could award any amount of damages they see fit.

Chris Chester (left) and his lawyer, Jerry Jackson, leave the Los Angeles federal courthouse on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. (Photo: Meghann M. Cuniff/Law&Crime)

Based on their unanimous verdict, the nine jurors appear to have stayed within Jackson’s recommended range for future damages, too. Bryant’s lawyers never mentioned a specific dollar amount in their argument and rebuttal, with lead counsel Luis Li telling jurors Wednesday Bryant has only ever wanted justice and accountability, and to “expose the county, to expose the fire department and expose the sheriff’s department” through trial.

“And what you heard is not pretty,” Li said.

However, he said, their verdict form allows only for a monetary damages award, so he hopes jurors see their verdict as a way to “shine a light on Kobe and Gianna’s legacy” that will “allow them to continue helping people across the country,” an apparent reference to Kobe and Gianna’s charity foundation.

Jackson also never mentioned the total of his recommendations – $75 million – but LA County lawyer Mira Hashmall referenced the figure in her closing Monday, telling jurors there was nothing presented at trial to support a damages award that high.

Hashmall, a partner at Miller Barondess LLP, said in an emailed statement Wednesday afternoon, “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.”

Hashmall said she and her team are “grateful for the jury’s hard work in this case.”

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

Chester and Bryant left the courthouse without speaking to reporters, though Bryant later posted a photo of herself whit Kobe and Gianna on Instagram, “All for you! I love you! JUSTICE for Kobe and GiGi.” She also noted the date: 8/24/22, with Kobe’s Lakers numbers being 8 and 24.

Li, a partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, said in a statement, “This case has always been about accountability – and now the jury has unanimously spoken.

The jurors included a nun and an employee from Bristol Farms, with several appearing to be in their 20s, including one who works at Kohl’s and one who works in TV production for NBC Universal. All left Wednesday without discussing the case publicly.

Vanessa Bryant (center) leaves court on Monday, Aug. 24, 2022, with her nephew, her daughter Natalia, and singers Ciara and Monica. Her lawyer Luis Li is on the left. (Photo: Meghann M. Cuniff/Law&Crime)

Bryant was joined for the verdict by her oldest daughter, Natalia Bryant, as well as soccer star Sydney Leroux, who was the inspiration for Gianna wearing the number 2 on her basketball jersey and watched several days of testimony. Los Angeles Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka, who was the first trial witness, also was in the courtroom for most of Wednesday morning, as was his wife, pediatrician Kristin Pelinka.

Bryant cried as the verdict was read shortly after 4 p.m. Wednesday, turning in her seat to look at the jurors and thank them. She also shared a long hug with Li, who has been her attorney since shortly after the Los Angeles Times published articles in late February 2020 about a deputy sharing the photos at a bar and an internal order to delete the photos.

Bryant and Chester’s lawsuits were consolidated for trial and based on the constitutional right to privacy. The legal precedent comes from a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, Marsh v. San Diego, about a woman who sued after the prosecutor who tried her son’s murderer gave a copy of autopsy photo he’d kept of the boy to a newspaper and TV station.

Closing arguments focused in part on what should be considered public dissemination, after testimony established without dispute that Deputy Joey Cruz showed the photos at a bar while off-duty and fire Capt. Tony Imbrenda showed them at a an awards gala. Both denied under oath that they were entertainment by them, with Cruz testifying that he was overwhelmed from being at the crash site and wanted to talk to his friend, bartender Victor Gutierrez.

Li in his rebuttal on Wednesday pointed out Luella Weireter, a cousin of Keri Altobelli who was in the gallery and testified in trial about seeing Imbrenda sharing photos of the crash cite during the gala and hearing Capt. Sky Cornell make a crass comment about having seen a photo of Kobe’s body. Both Imbrenda and Cornell denied this in their sworn testimony. Jackson also addressed the courtroom credibility battle between Imbrenda and Weireter in his rebuttal Wednesday, describing Weireter walking into a fire station with her baby to inform leadership about what she saw, then telling the jury that if it’s between “Captain Imbrenda and Ms. Werieter, Captain, you lose. You lose.”

Imbrenda testified last week that he was “talking shop” with colleagues while explaining crash site logistics and aircraft identification methods and denied having photos of Kobe Bryant’s body or any other body. But he also testified that he’d been sent photos by now-retired fire Capt. Brian Jordan, who was walked around the crash site to photograph each body at the guidance of sheriff’s Deputy Doug Johnson, including Sarah Chester and Gianna’s bodies down in a ravine. Johnson himself had photographed each body earlier after he and another deputy were the only ones who could make the hike up the mountainside to the crash site.

A firefighter paramedic had been dropped in on a rope to search for survivors after the crash was reported at 9:45 a.m., but Johnson testified they weren’t sure how many were onboard and that photographing the crash site was standard practice. He said he was instructed to photograph the scene by Deputy Raul Versalles, who denied doing so, though Sgt. Travis Kelly later testified he’d ordered the photographs.

One point of dispute was how many photos Johnson took: He said it was about 25, as did Versalles, but Reserve Deputy David Katz and Lt. Hector Mancinas said it was about 100. Bryant and Chester’s lawyers pointed to it as an example of the sloppiness of the county’s approach to the photos, which were ordered deleted in what was repeatedly described in trial as an amnesty move by Sheriff Alex Villanueva. Jurors also heard of disciplinary findings against Imbrenda, Jordan and fire Capt. Arlin Kahan related to the photos, with the only discipline imposed by the sheriff’s department beyond performance entry logs being a 10-day suspension for Cruz that was reduced to a two-day suspension with three days of training.

Trial witnesses included Villanueva and other high-ranking sheriff’s officials such as Chief Jorge Valdez, who apologized on the witness stand to Bryant and Chester during direct exam by Jackson in what Chester called it “too little too late” in his own testimony. Acting Los Angeles County Fire Chief Anthony Marrone also testified, with all admitting to learning in trial that Jordan, the fire captain who photographed every body at the crash scene, returned a county-issued laptop without a hard drive. The hard drive has never been located. Villanueva also said he didn’t know Johnson sent his photos from the crash site to someone described as a high-ranking fire official but remains unidentified.

Jordan testified in what Hashmall described in her closing argument Wednesday as a “wild day in court for everyone,” with Jordan fleeing the witness stand briefly on three occasions, saying he had images in his head from the crash site that he couldn’t handle. Bryant’s lawyer Craig Lavoie discussed Jordan extensively during his closing argument Tuesday afternoon, reminding them of a crass comment from hsi testimony and saying, “If that’s what he says under oath in open court, what do you think he thinks of these victims’ remains while he’s alone with those photos at his home?”

“Imagine how Mrs. Bryant and Mr. Chester feel about their fate being in Brian Jordan’s hands,” said Lavoie who along with Li represented Bryant with attorneys Eric Tuttle and the coincidentally named Jennifer Bryant.

[Image via screenshot from CBS News]

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A graduate of the University of Oregon, Meghann worked at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, and the Idaho Statesman in Boise, Idaho, before moving to California in 2013 to work at the Orange County Register. She spent four years as a litigation reporter for the Los Angeles Daily Journal and one year as a California-based editor and reporter for and associated publications such as The National Law Journal and New York Law Journal before joining Law & Crime News. Meghann has written for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Los Angeles Magazine, Bloomberg Law, ABA Journal, The Forward, Los Angeles Business Journal and the Laguna Beach Independent. Her Twitter coverage of federal court hearings in a lawsuit over homelessness in Los Angeles placed 1st in the Los Angeles Press Club's Southern California Journalism Awards for Best Use of Social Media by an Independent Journalist in 2021. An article she freelanced for Los Angeles Times Community News about a debate among federal judges regarding the safety of jury trials during COVID also placed 1st in the Orange County Press Club Awards for Best Pandemic News Story in 2021.