L.A. County to pay $28.85M in Vanessa Bryant's lawsuit over photos from crash that killed Kobe
The settlement brings the county's total expenditure in the scandal to nearly $50 million, not including money spent on the defense lawyers who took the case to trial.
Los Angeles County will pay Vanessa Bryant $28.85 million for misusing photos from the helicopter crash that killed Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and their 13-year-old daughter Gianna, ending the widow’s remaining legal claims in a settlement that encompasses a federal jury’s $15 million verdict.
Vanessa and Kobe’s youngest daughters, 6-year-old Bianka and 3-year-old Capri, will be added as plaintiffs to finalize the deal, which was approved Tuesday by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
The additional $13.5 million resolves invasion of privacy claims brought under California state law that weren’t part of the federal trial last August. Those claims related to the initial taking of the photos, while the federal claims considered by the jury related to sheriff and fire department employees sharing photos of human remains from the Jan. 26, 2020, crash.
Bryant’s lead lawyer, Luis Li of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, filed notice of the settlement and a stipulation to amend the complaint on Tuesday with U.S. District Judge John Walter.
Li said in a statement, “Today marks the successful culmination of Mrs. Bryant’s courageous battle to hold accountable those who engaged in this grotesque conduct.”
“She fought for her husband, her daughter, and all those in the community whose deceased family were treated with similar disrespect,” Li said. “We hope her victory at trial and this settlement will put an end to this practice.”
The county’s lead trial lawyer, Mira Hashmall of Miller Barondess LLP, said she believes the settlement is “fair and reasonable.”
“The $28,850,000 settlement includes the verdict awarded by the federal jury in August 2022, and further resolves all outstanding issues related to pending legal claims in state court, future claims by the Bryant children, and other costs, with each party responsible for its respective attorneys’ fees,” Hashmall said in a written statement. “This settlement now concludes all County-related litigation related to the tragic January 2020 helicopter crash. We hope Ms. Bryant and her children continue to heal from their loss.”
The $15 million the jury awarded Bryant last August is for emotional distress she suffered and will suffer knowing graphic photos of her husband’s and daughter’s remains were shown publicly, including at a bar and during cocktails at an awards gala, and for what she described to jurors as her never-ending fear that the photos will someday surface on the Internet or elsewhere.
A major focus of trial was the county’s shoddy investigation. Testimony from county officials revealed that a now-retired fire captain who photographed each area of human remains returned a county-owned laptop computer without a hard drive that to this day has never been located, and that the sheriff’s deputy who first photographed each body sent the photos to a man he believed to be a high-ranking sheriff’s captain but has never identified.
The jury also awarded $15 million to Christopher Chester, whose wife, Sarah George Chester, and 13-year-old daughter, Payton, died in the crash. He learned through Los Angeles Times articles that a sheriff’s deputy had shown photos from the crash at a bar, and a fire captain had shown photos during cocktail hour at a gala.
Chester settled his case entirely in September for $19.95 million, which includes the $15 million verdict as well as fees owed to his attorney, Jerry Jackson.
Bryant’s $28.85 million settlement also includes her attorney fees. It doesn’t specify the amount, but she had a team from Wilson Sonsini as well as Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, which are two of the most expensive law firms in the United States. Jackson’s pre-trial filings largely copied their filings, including extensive briefing related to a motion for sanctions over the spoliation of evidence i.e., the photos that county officials ordered deleted.
Tuesday’s settlement is the fourth for Los Angeles County in the scandal, including Chester’s in September.
In November 2021, the county 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.
I covered Bryant’s and Chester’s trial for Law & Crime News, and I’m quick to say it was the most well-done trial I have ever watched in terms of the lawyering. I looked through my past coverage while putting this piece together and was struck by how crucial all the testimony was.
The trial was covered by the celebrity media and attended by Vanessa’s famous friends such as singers Ciara and Monica and soccer star Sydney Leroux, but at its core, the trial was a profound civics lesson on public corruption in Los Angeles County.
The perjury that went on in court from uniformed county employees was at times blatant, and the pre-trial background involving the deleted photos and mass wiping of phones is ugly.
The county’s lawyers also took a litigation posture unbecoming of such a public corruption scandal. (The psychiatrist they hired to asses Chester and Bryant’s medical records never even ended up testifying.)
Then there was the witness stand appearance of retired Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Brian Jordan, who photographed each area of remains up-close for what a disciplinary report concluded was no legitimate purpose. (He’s the one who returned his company-issued laptop without a hard drive.) Jordan fled the stand three times during testimony, claiming he needed a break. It may go down as the most unusual thing I’ve seen in a courtroom.
In his closing argument, Bryant’s lawyer Craig Lavoie of Munger Tolles reminded jurors that Deputy Doug Johnson testified he walked Jordan to each area of human remains at his request so he could photograph them, down into a ravine where Sarah Chester’s and Gianna’s were located, even after Johnson had photographed them.
“Can you imagine walking down into a ravine to take souvenir pictures of a deceased child?” Lavoie said to the jury.
“The county’s conduct doesn’t just shock the conscious, “It shocks the conscious times 1,000,” Lavoie said.
I re-read my article on Lavoie’s and Jackson’s closings tonight, and I invite you to do the same. (Closings began on what would have been Kobe’s 44th birthday, as Lavoie noted in his introduciton.)
You can find all my trial coverage here.
Here are some highlights:
Aug. 19: ‘I Trusted Them’: Vanessa Bryant Takes Stand for First Time at Trial Against LA County, Recalls Moment She Was ‘Blindsided’ by Crash Photos
Aug. 17: LA County Sheriff’s Chief Apologizes to Vanessa Bryant During Trial Over Sharing of Helicopter Crash Photos
Aug. 17: Fire Captain Denies That He Showed Photos of Kobe Bryant’s Body at Gala Cocktail Hour as ‘Party Trick’
Aug. 11: Los Angeles Lakers GM Rob Pelinka Testifies He ‘Knew The Impact’ LA County’s Misuse of Photos Would Have on Vanessa Bryant
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Good for her. Hopefully this will put an end to this practice and send a message to law enforcement that sensitivity training is needed when handling tragic cases like this.