An attorney Tuesday asked a federal jury to award Vanessa Bryant and her co-plaintiff—both of whom lost spouses and daughters in the helicopter crash that killed Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and eight others—tens of millions of dollars each for emotional distress caused when photos of their loved ones’ remains allegedly were snapped and shared for no legitimate reason by Los Angeles County’s first responders at the scene of the tragedy.
Jerry Jackson, attorney for plaintiff Chris Chester, asked that Los Angeles County be ordered to pay $2.5 million to both Bryant and his client for pain and suffering caused in the 2 1/2 years since the crash, and $1 million each year for future emotional distress for what the attorney predicted would be the rest of their lives. For Bryant, 40, that would mean $40 million and for Chester, 48, it would be an award of $30 million, according to the attorney.
Jackson called the tally “a fair and reasonable compensation. You can’t award too much money for what they went through.”
Jackson and one of Bryant’s attorneys delivered their closing arguments Tuesday, with the county expected to address the jury in Los Angeles federal court Wednesday morning. After rebuttal, the jury will begin deliberations.
Discussing the awards for future pain and suffering against the county sheriff’s and fire departments, Jackson told jurors that if they felt the proposed monetary damages were too high, “you should reduce it. If you think it’s too low, you should increase it.”
The arguments came on the 10th day of trial for Bryant and Chester’s combined lawsuits alleging negligence and invasion of privacy for the taking and sharing of accident scene photos, which the county says have all been destroyed. Bryant’s 41-year-old husband Kobe and 13-year-old daughter Gianna, along with Chester’s wife Sarah and the couple’s 13-year-old daughter Payton, were among those killed in the Jan. 26, 2020, crash.
The plaintiffs say county personnel took graphic cell-phone pictures of human remains at the remote Calabasas crash site for their own amusement as “souvenirs” and shared them with other law enforcement personnel and members of the public.
The county has not disputed that at the very least some photos were shared with deputies and firefighters, but defense attorneys maintain that all images taken by first responders were deleted upon orders of superior officers, and no longer exist in any form. The photos never entered the public domain or appeared on the internet, the county insists.
In his summation, attorney Craig Lavoie mentioned that Tuesday would have been Kobe’s 44th birthday. The attorney said it was “an honor to stand here today asking for justice and accountability” on behalf of the basketball great, his widow and the couple’s daughter.
“We’re here because of intentional conduct — the county violated Mrs. Bryant and Mr. Chester’s constitutional rights,” Lavoie said, asking the jury to hold the county liable for “the constitutional violations of its employees.”
The attorney argued that the county had no policies or training to directly address the taking of photos of dead bodies by deputies and firefighters. He quoted Sheriff Alex Villanueva saying that employees of the department and other agencies have a long-standing custom of creating “death books” showing pictures of human remains.
The display of such photos to members of the public — as Deputy Joey Cruz is accused of doing when he allegedly showed a bartender friend, a bar patron and his own niece cell-phone images of Kobe’s body taken at the crash site — “shocks the conscience,” Lavoie said.
The attorney reminded the jury of the testimony of firefighters and sheriff’s deputies whose statements on the stand were frequently contradicted by their previous interviews and depositions.
He also brought up the testimony of a sheriff’s deputy who told jurors he shared graphic photos from the crash site with a fellow deputy while they played the video game “Call of Duty.” Deputy Michael Russell testified that he texted several photos from the accident site to his gamer friend one day after the crash.
Along with Chester and Bryant’s loved ones, the crash killed Alyssa Altobelli, 14; Keri Altobelli, 46; John Altobelli, 56; Christina Mauser, 38; and pilot Ara Zobayan, 50.
Two families separately settled with the county over the photos for $1.25 million each. All of the victims’ families reached a settlement with the helicopter company for the crash, but those terms remain confidential.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated an incorrect total of the damages Jackson suggested in court. The amount is $75 million.
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign for our newsletters today