Los Angeles County has agreed to pay $19.95 million to one of the two plaintiffs in a recent trial over gruesome photos from the helicopter crash that killed NBA legend Kobe Bryant in January 2020.
The settlement with the family of Chris Chester includes a $15 million verdict awarded to him last month after a two-week jury trial where Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, also won a $15 million judgment. In exchange for accepting a higher amount, Chester also agreed to resolve all pending litigation or future claims by him or his family after he lost his wife, Sarah, and daughter, Payton, in the same crash.
Bryant has not settled with the county. Both sued the county for invasion of privacy in 2020 and finally presented their cases to a civil jury in August. They alleged that county sheriff’s and fire department employees used their personal phones to share and display photos of their dead family members from the crash scene despite not having a legitimate reason for doing so.
The county board of supervisors unanimously authorized the settlement to the Chester family Tuesday.
“We believe the $19,950,000 settlement with the Chester family is fair and reasonable to all concerned,” said a statement from Mira Hashmall, partner at the Miller Barondess law firm and lead trial counsel for the county in the Bryant-Chester case. “This amount includes the $15 million verdict awarded to Mr. Chester by the federal jury and 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.”
The county last year agreed to pay $1.25 million each to two other families who lost loved ones in the same crash and then filed similar lawsuits over the photos of their loved ones. But Chester and Bryant elected to take their cases to trial, where a jury of nine found that their constitutional right to control the death images of family members had been violated by the sheriff’s and fire departments. The jury awarded them damages for past and future emotional distress after their attorneys argued in court that both now live in fear of these grisly photos resurfacing at any time.
In its defense, the county said the photos were never posted online and were deleted soon after the crash to prevent them from spreading further.
This case was not about fault for the crash itself but instead about what happened afterward when first responders went to the scene, took pictures and shared them. Last year, the families also reached a confidential settlement with the operator of the doomed helicopter.
Bryant still has leverage against the county in the photos case. After winning at trial, both plaintiffs could have pursued California state law claims against the county that were part of their lawsuits but not part of their trial over constitutional rights in federal court. Chester resolved this by settling with the county for an amount that was more than his trial verdict. But Bryant still could pursue it and has been considering it, according to court records.
“These are different claims now because, as the court found, the taking of photos is not a violation under (federal precedent), whereas taking of photos is a violation under state law, invasion of privacy,” Bryant’s attorney Luis Li said in court Aug. 26. “So we have not yet decided what to do.”
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org