California & USA

L.A. County pays extra for Kobe Bryant crash photos

 

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday agreed to pay an additional $4.95 million to Chris Chester over graphic photos that sheriff’s deputies and firefighters took of the helicopter crash that killed his wife and daughter along with Kobe Bryant and six others in 2020.

A federal jury last month awarded Chester and Bryant’s widow, Vanessa Bryant, $31 million after a trial in which defense lawyers argued that illicit photos of the victims had violated their right to privacy and inflicted emotional distress. Chester lost his wife, Sarah, and 13-year-old daughter, Payton, in the crash. Jurors awarded him $15 million in the verdict.

The supervisors approved the latest settlement with the Chester family in a closed session.

Mira Hashmall, an outside attorney representing the county in the litigation, said the additional payout “resolves all outstanding issues relating to the pending state claims, future claims by the Chester children, attorneys’ fees and costs.”

“We sincerely hope this settlement will help Mr. Chester and his children move forward with their lives,’’ Hashmall said, calling it “fair and reasonable to all concerned.’’

The settlement approved Tuesday by the board resolves only the claims by the Chester family.

Vanessa Bryant, who lost her husband and her 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, in the crash, still could pursue her claims of invasion of privacy stemming from the photos. She also could seek considerable legal fees accrued in the long and complex federal litigation.

Federal jurors awarded Bryant $16 million on Aug. 24 for the distress they found she had already suffered over the photos and would suffer going forward. When the verdict was read, Bryant cried with her head bowed and her hands folded in a prayer position.

Throughout the 11-day trial, lawyers for Bryant and Chester documented how the photos had spread from the phones of deputies and firefighters at the crash scene on the steep Calabasas hillside. They were flashed from a sheriff’s deputy’s phone screen to a bartender in Norwalk. They were shown to firefighters and their spouses during an awards gala at a hotel in Universal City in what amounted, one witness said, to a “party trick.” They were passed from one deputy to another as the pair played video games.

County lawyers insisted that first responders must take and receive photos, including to help determine the size of a crash site and decide what resources are needed. The images, they said, were never published online or in the media — nor were they seen by the victims’ families because of swift work by sheriff’s and fire leaders in tamping down their spread.

Attorneys for Bryant and Chester argued that it is not known how far the images spread because the county did not thoroughly investigate. It wasn’t until most of the involved deputies had received new phones that officials hired a firm to conduct a forensic examination of employee devices. The laptop of one fire captain who took photos was missing its hard drive when it was examined, attorneys said. The captain, Brian Jordan, who has since retired, claimed under oath that he did not remember being at the crash site at all.

Bryant’s attorney Craig Lavoie said the phone of Joey Cruz, a deputy who showed graphic photos to a bartender in Norwalk, had been reset before it was turned over to the firm. When it was turned on, it was as if it were new, with no photos saved. And the identity of at least one firefighter who received the photos remains unknown.

The helicopter carrying the Bryants, Chesters and others was on its way from Orange County to a youth basketball game in Thousand Oaks when it slammed into a Calabasas hillside in dense fog on Jan. 26, 2020, after the pilot became spatially disoriented.

Chris Chester and Vanessa Bryant filed their lawsuits after a Times investigation that exposed that deputies had shared photos of the crash.

County officials previously agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle two other lawsuits filed by relatives of people killed in the crash. Mathew Mauser, whose wife, Christine, died in the crash received half that money, while J.J. Altobelli and Alexis Altobelli got the other half. Their mother, Keri; father, John; and young sister, Alyssa, were killed in the crash.

In reaching its verdict in the lawsuit, jurors found that the Sheriff’s Department did not have adequate training and policies to prevent employees from taking and sharing photos of dead bodies for no purpose and that there has been a long-standing practice among deputies of sharing death images for no legitimate reason. The county Fire Department, jurors decided, also did not have sufficient training and policies.

Chester’s attorney, Jerry Jackson, asked the jury to award Bryant and Chester up to $75 million in combined damages for their emotional distress. Bryant’s attorneys did not specify a figure.

“You can’t award too much money for what they went through,” Jackson told federal jurors. “What they went through is inhuman and inhumane,” he said, gesturing toward the county, “and they did it.”

Times staff writer Alene Tchekmedyian contributed to this report.

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