Briefing

Vanessa Bryant's fight for accountability

The widow of Kobe Bryant sued Los Angeles County over shared photos of the crash where her husband and daughter died

Vanessa Bryant, the widow of NBA and Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, sued Los Angeles County after learning that first responders took and shared pictures of the helicopter crash site where her husband, daughter Gianna, and seven others were killed in January 2020. Last Wednesday, a jury awarded Bryant $16 million in damages. Here's everything you need to know:

Why did Vanessa Bryant sue Los Angeles County? 

On January 26, 2020, a helicopter flying in foggy conditions crashed in the hills of Calabasas, California. The helicopter's passengers were en route to a basketball game at Kobe Bryant's Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, and everyone on board — Bryant; his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna; John Altobelli, his wife Keri Altobelli, and 14-year-old daughter Alyssa Altobelli; 13-year-old Payton Chester and her mother Sara Chester; basketball coach Christina Mauser; and pilot Ara Zobayan — died in the accident.

One month later, the Los Angeles Times reported that Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies took graphic photos of the crash scene, with a source telling the newspaper he saw one of the cell phone pictures in a setting that was not connected to the accident investigation. The Times also learned that three days after the helicopter crash, someone used the contact form on the Sheriff's Department's website to leave a complaint about a deputy trainee who showed pictures of the accident scene to a bartender. Bryant filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles County in September 2020 for negligence and invasion of privacy, and asked for compensatory and punitive damages. That month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed into law a bill making it a misdemeanor for first responders to take unauthorized photos of a deceased person at a crime or accident scene.

Did any other families join Vanessa Bryant's lawsuit?

Yes. Chris Chester, whose daughter Payton and wife Sarah were killed in the helicopter crash, joined the suit. Attorneys for both Bryant and Chester said their clients have not seen the photos of the crash scene, but are afraid that one day they will be posted online. "Like a virus, these pictures spread throughout the county, and we don't know and they don't know what happened after they spread," Bryant's lawyer, Luis Li, said.

What was revealed in court during the trial?

The trial began in a downtown Los Angeles federal court on Aug. 10, and during opening statements, Li told jurors that first responders "took pictures of broken bodies," snapping "close-ups of limbs, of burnt flesh. It shocks the conscience." He accused county employees of taking the photos "as souvenirs," and said his client will be "haunted by what they did forever."

Over the course of the trial, several witnesses — including Ralph Mendez, the man who made the complaint on the Sheriff's Department's website — testified that they saw law enforcement officials inappropriately sharing crash scene photos. Bryant also took the stand, and said when she learned about the images being shared, "I bolted out of the house. I broke down and cried, and I wanted to run down the block and just scream. But I couldn't escape. I can't escape my body." She believed the first responders would "have more compassion, respect. My husband and my daughter deserve dignity." 

The county's lawyers argued that first responders routinely take and send photos of accident scenes in order to figure out the exact resources needed, and said the photos from the helicopter crash site had all been deleted. Law enforcement officials provided conflicting testimony, with Sheriff's Deputy Rafael Mejia saying while on the stand he didn't know if the victims' bodies could be seen in photos sent to him by a first responder; two years ago, he was interviewed by sheriff's investigators and described being able to see body parts in the pictures. Mejia was asked about the discrepancies, and responded, "Time has passed. It's not that I was intentionally trying to lie. It's a lapse in memory." Retired Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Brian Jordan testified that he couldn't remember if he had even been at the crash scene, despite sharing during an earlier deposition what it was like walking around the site.

What did the jury decide?

After deliberating for less than five hours, the jury on Wednesday awarded Bryant and Chester $31 million in damages, to be paid by both the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Bryant will receive $16 million and Chester $15 million. An emotional Bryant and Chester hugged after the verdicts were read, but did not speak to reporters after leaving court.

Has Vanessa Bryant said what she will do next?

On Thursday, Li said Bryant will donate proceeds from the $16 million judgement to the Mamba and Mambacita Sports Foundation, a nonprofit named in honor of Kobe, whose nickname was Black Mamba, and Gianna that funds programs for underserved athletes. "From the beginning, Vanessa Bryant has sought only accountability, but our legal system does not permit her to force better policies, more training, or officer discipline," Li said in a statement.

He added that Bryant is "deeply grateful" to Mendez and Luella Weireter, another witness who contacted the Los Angeles County Fire Department after learning firefighters at an awards gala were sharing crash site photos. Mendez and Weireter "brought to light the decades old practice of taking and sharing photos of accident and crime victims for no legitimate purpose," Li said. "It is Mrs. Bryant's hope that this important civil rights case will put to a stop this abhorrent and callous behavior."

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