The widower who was awarded $15 million along with Vanessa Bryant for Los Angeles County’s mishandling of photos of human remains from the helicopter crash that killed his wife and daughter will settle all claims against the county for an additional total of nearly $5 million.
Christopher Chester‘s $19.95 million settlement was announced Tuesday in a press release from the private law firm that handled the case for the county. It whose covers the $15 million the jury awarded Chester last month for federal civil rights claims related to the distribution of photos of his wife, Sarah George Chester, and 13-year-old daughter, Payton Chester, after they died in the Jan. 26, 2020, crash that killed Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna Bryant.
The settlement also covers attorneys fees and costs as well as claims under California’s invasion of privacy law for the initial taking of the photos, which weren’t considered by the jury during the 10-day trial last month before U.S. District Judge John F. Walter in Los Angeles.
The amount does not include Bryant, who also was awarded $15 million — jurors initially awarded $16 million by mistake — and who has the same California state claims remaining.
Judge Walter removed the state claims from the federal case shortly before trial. Walter had given Bryant and Chester until Sept. 19 to say how they would proceed, but he extended the deadline to Oct. 10 at Chester and Bryant’s request.
LA County’s lead trial lawyer Mira Hashmall, a partner at Miller Barondess LLP, said in an email she believes the nearly $20 million settlement “is fair and reasonable to all concerned.”
“We sincerely hope this settlement will help Mr. Chester and his children move forward with their lives,” Hashmall said. The LA County Board of Supervisors had considered the case during a special closed session Tuesday.
Reached by Law&Crime on Tuesday, Chester’s lawyer, Jerry Jackson, said, “The Chester family is very pleased that this matter has been resolved to their satisfaction.”
A licensed attorney in California since 1975, Jackson is a solo practitioner based in El Segundo, near Los Angeles, who represented Chester on his own. He showed his courtroom prowess in trial, eliciting praise from Walter amid effective and fiery witness examinations before delivering a skilled damages request that jurors ended up mostly following. But most of his filings in the extensive pre-trial litigation were copied from Bryant’s lawyers, who included four partners from two of the top firms in Los Angeles, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati and Munger, Tolles, & Olson LLP, and an unknown number of associates.
That makes Bryant’s attorney fees and costs likely far greater than anything Jackson accrued in his representation of Chester, so any negotiations Bryant’s lawyers may be having likely involve more than an additional $5 million.
Bryant’s lead lawyer Luis Li was unavailable for comment on Tuesday.
The county’s settlement with Chester is a stark change from a pre-trial posture that included litigation over a psychiatrist hired by the county who reviewed Chester and Bryant’s medical records and concluded Bryant’s “distress lies in what she imagines the photographs depict and the fear she has about such images being publicly disclosed.”
The psychiatrist never ended up testifying, and the testimony jurors did hear described how a deputy shared photos of human remains from the crash with a bartender friend after being sent copies by his supervisor. Jurors also heard of a fire captain sharing the photos on his phone during an awards gala, and they heard of how another fire captain who photographed each body at the crash scene returned his county-issued laptop without a hard drive. They deliberated less than five hours before awarding Chester $15 million and Bryant $16 million, which was later reduced to $15 million after a jury notified the court of the mistaken addition of $1 million. Bryant agreed to the reduction without questioning the jury, with Li telling the judge: “Mrs. Bryant truly feels that it’s a just result that she was awarded the same amount as Mr. Chester. From her heart she feels that.”
The verdict addressed emotional distress Bryant and Chester suffered — and will suffer — for knowing graphic photos of their spouses’ and daughters’ remains were shown publicly, and for what both described to jurors as their unending fear that the photos will someday surface on the Internet or elsewhere.
Chester, 48, had been with his wife since they were student athletes at Whittier College together. In his testimony, he described how he learned of the crash while attending their twin sons’ lacrosse match in Irvine as Sarah was to accompany Payton to a basketball tournament in Calabasas. Payton and Gianna were on the same team coached by Kobe Bryant, and he’d offered his helicopter to Payton that weekend so she could play for both her school team and his club team that weekend. Neither had ever flown on a helicopter until the night before the crash, and Chris Chester testified that both were nervous fliers.
Chester also testified about how his grief was intensified when he learned from reading a Los Angeles Times article that photos of human remains from the crash had been shown as entertainment by county officials. His friend Paul Westhead Jr., described it as “the equivalent of someone taking a big punch” and falling down, then while getting up “you get hit by a 2 x 4” from behind.
“You didn’t see the punch coming and you don’t get off the mat,” testified Westhead, who works with Chester at Rimrock Capital Management.
The settlement announced Tuesday is the third for Los Angeles County, which last November agreed to pay $1.25 million apiece to the families of crash victims Christina Mauser, who was the team’s assistant coach, as well as Orange Coast Community College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri Altobelli, and their 13-year-old daughter Alyssa Altobelli.
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