Attorneys in Kobe Bryant helicopter crash trial ask for up to $75 million in damages as case comes to close on late basketball star's birthday
Attorneys for Vanessa Bryant offered a somber closing argument on Tuesday.
They said that first responders were 'cruel' when they took and shared graphic crash site photos of Kobe Bryant.
Attorneys for Bryant and Chris Chester laid out the amount of money they are seeking for damages.
An attorney for Vanessa Bryant made one last impassioned plea to jurors on the day of her husband's birthday, wrapping up a somber trial dealing with graphic photos of his dead body that were taken and shared by members of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Deputies and Los Angeles County Fire Department.
"Forty years ago today in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Kobe Bryant was born," Bryant attorney Craig Lavoie told jurors. "Today is his birthday, and it's an honor to be asking for justice for him, and his daughter Gianna on his birthday."
Lavoie offered closing arguments for Bryant's side on the tenth day of her trial against Los Angeles County first responders who took and shared graphic photos of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe, Gianna Bryant, Sarah and Payton Chester, and seven others. Bryant's attorney said that the first responders ultimately failed to protect the dignity and privacy of his client's loved ones' lives.
Kobe Bryant "counted on the living to do that, and they betrayed that trust," Lavoie said. In a later rebuttal, Bryant attorney Luis Li said that Bryant was "here today to expose the fire department and the sheriff's department."
On Wednesday, Bryant was dressed in a white suit, while her 19-year-old daughter Natalia sat in the courtroom next to US Women's National Team soccer player Sydney Leroux and Lakers GM Rob Pelinka and his wife Kristin.
Jurors will have 6 things to consider on the verdict form
Bryant and Chester sued the county over allegations that LA sheriff's deputies and LA County Fire Department captains took and shared graphic photos of the January 2020 helicopter crash that killed nine people, including NBA star Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna.
Jurors will be tasked with evaluating whether Bryant and Chester's constitutional rights to the privacy of images of their loved ones were violated by LASD and LACFD as a result of the photos being taken and disseminated among staff members and in a few public settings.
According to the verdict form, if jurors agree, they will be asked to determine whether inadequate training and policies led to the incident, or whether it was a common practice or custom to take photos of human remains and deceased people within the agencies. If jurors agree with one or both of those options, then the verdict will land with Bryant and Chester.
The first two questions of the form will ask jurors to determine LASD's role in the dissemination, while another two will ask the same questions about policy and practice related to LACFD.
Bryant and Chester's attorneys will ask jurors to award the plaintiffs $2.5 million each in past emotional distress damages related to grief and anxiety. Chester's attorneys asked for $1 million in future annual damages for 30 years for Chester, and argued Vanessa Bryant should be owed up to $1 million a year for 40 years. It amounts to a total of up to $75 million.
The jury will decide on public dissemination, destroyed evidence
Lavoie said that Bryant has been "haunted" by the "life-shattering incident" and argued that the conduct of the staff who spread photos "shocks the conscience."
Along with the citizen complaints that identified Deputy Joey Cruz showing the photos to bartender Victor Gutierrez, or Luella Weireter's testimony that LACFD public information officer Tony Imbrenda showed graphic crash photos at a gala "like a party trick," Lavoie argued that in several instances where LASD staff sent the photos to each other while off duty and on personal phones – like while playing Call of Duty – should be considered public spread.
Lavoie zeroed in on flaky testimonies from LASD and LACFD staff throughout the trial. The officials at times have contradicted their own internal investigation interviews, depositions, and testimonies from their superiors. Attorneys for the County have maintained that the deletion order once graphic photos were discovered was effective and that on the day of the crash, scene photography was "essential" for first responders to do their jobs.
Bryant's attorney said that retired LACFD captain Brian Jordan "had a chaperone take him around from body to body under false pretenses," referring to Deputy Doug Johnson, who took anywhere from 25 to over 100 photos, according to testimonies.
"Hiking down into a ravine to take photos of Gianna Bryant, a deceased child, can you imagine?" Lavoie said. "Imagine how Mrs. Bryant and Mr. Chester feel having put their faith in Brian Jordan's hands."
Attorneys for the plaintiffs used quotes from Sheriff Alex Villanueva from months after the crash, where he called the LASD site photo policy "deficient," and others where he said that taking illicit photos of human remains has been a problem for cops "since the invention of the Polaroid camera."
In the County's closing arguments, lead attorney Mira Hashmall said that the "mistakes of a few personnel," did not amount to constitutional violations for Bryant and Chester.
"This is the pictures case, and there are no pictures," Mira Hashmall, the county's attorney, told jurors, referring to the LA County Sheriff's order to delete the graphic pictures of the crash to prevent their spread.
Hashmall claimed that the only photos of the crash site that were publicly disseminated were the live shots that news helicopter cameras were delivering on the day of the crash.
She told the court that in over 100 years of the LASD and LACFD's existence, there have been no similar incidents, asking jurors to consider if "one incident in 100 years can be considered widespread."
"A custom is the creamer you put in your coffee every day," Hashmall said. County attorneys suggested that some staff members including Deputy Joey Cruz and LACFD captain Tony Imbrenda violated county confidentiality policies, but not any constitutional rights.
"Imagine if first responders have to think about being sued when they send their boss site photos," Hashmall said. "Apparently, accountability is $75 million from public taxpayer-funded money."
An ominous phone call midway through the trial
Jerome Jackson, an attorney for Chester, said that first responders "kicked him while he was down."
"They did it cruelly, and then they lied about it," Jackson said, accusing the county of a "sloppy, dumb cover-up."
Jurors will be given an instruction to determine whether LA County first responders and their superiors deleted evidence in the aftermath of the crash, and attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that jurors should consider that several staff members wiped or replaced their phones after a March 2, 2020 notice to preserve evidence, and that Jordan's laptop was missing a hard drive when turned in to LACFD investigators.
Jackson said that as recently as last week, he received a voicemail from a woman purporting to have graphic crash site photos on a website that is selling them.
"It sent a chill up my spine," he said.
Lavoie left the screen black for the last part of his presentation as Bryant left the room, visibly affected by her attorney's retracing of key, traumatic events for her family.
"For the rest of their lives, Mrs. Bryant and Mr. Chester will face two things, " Lavoie told jurors. "Either the photos will surface, or they will live in fear for the rest of their lives about when that day will come."
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