LA County Ordered to Pay $31 Million in Damages Over Kobe Bryant Crash Photos

The verdict is in and the incident scene photo-taking by Los Angeles County Sheriffs and firefighters at the scene of the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash in 2020 will cost the taxpayers an additional $31 million. That figure is on top of $2.5 million in settlements already reached with the families who also sued.

The verdict was handed down last Thursday by a federal court jury awarding Bryant’s widow, Vanessa Bryant, $16 million in damages. Christopher Chester, whose wife and daughter also died in the crash, was awarded $15 million.

The Bryant and Chester suits were filed as separate actions, but heard together. The suits alleged violations of the Fourteenth Amendment under 42 USC §1983, negligence, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. According to the verdict forms, the issues were substantially narrowed as to whether the county violated the families’ constitutional rights:

  • based on a policy that fails to prevent violations of law by its employees or a failure to train its employees.
  • based on a practice or custom.

The jury instructions provide a more comprehensive explanation:

  • Each of the plaintiffs, Vanessa Bryant and Christopher Chester, brings a claim under the federal statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which provides that any person or persons who, under color of state law, deprives another of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States shall be liable to the injured party.
  • The plaintiffs each allege that the defendants violated § 1983 by having policies that failed to prevent violations of law by their employees and by failing to train their employees.
  • In order to prevail on his or her§ 1983 claim against a defendant based on a policy that fails to prevent violations of law by its employees or a failure to train its employees, each plaintiff must prove each of the following elements by a preponderance of the evidence:
    • The acts of one or more employees of the defendant deprived the plaintiff of his or her particular rights under the United States Constitution…;
    • That employee or those employees of the defendant acted under color of state law;
    • The policies or training of the defendant were not adequate to prevent violations of law by its employees or to train its employees to handle the usual and recurring situations with which they must deal;
    • The defendant was deliberately indifferent to: (a) the substantial risk that its policies were inadequate to prevent violations of law by its employees; or (b) the known or obvious consequence of its failure to train its employees adequately; and the failure of the defendant to have policies adequate to prevent violations of law by its employees or to provide adequate training caused the deprivation of the plaintiff’s rights by the employee or employees of the defendant; that is, the defendant’s failure to have policies adequate to prevent violations of law by its employees or train its employees played a substantial part in bringing about or actually causing the injury or damage to the plaintiff.
  • A person acts “under color of state law” when the person acts or purports to act in the performance of official duties under any state, county, or municipal law, ordinance or regulation.
  • A policy is a deliberate choice to follow a course of action made from among various alternatives by the official or officials responsible for establishing final policy with respect to the subject matter in question. A policy of inaction or omission may be based on a failure to implement procedural safeguards to prevent constitutional violations, a failure to adopt a needed policy, a failure to enforce a policy, or a failure to train. To establish that there is a policy based on a failure to preserve constitutional rights, a plaintiff must show, in addition to a constitutional violation, that this policy amounts to deliberate indifference to the plaintiff’s constitutional rights, and that the policy caused the violation, in the sense that the municipality could have prevented the violation with an appropriate policy.
  • “Deliberate indifference” is the conscious choice to disregard the consequences of one’s acts or omissions.
  • A plaintiff may prove deliberate indifference in this case by showing that the facts available to a defendant put the defendant on actual or constructive notice that its failure to adopt, enforce, or implement adequate policies or failure to train adequately was substantially certain to result in the violation of the constitutional rights of persons such as the plaintiff due to its employees’ conduct. A defendant is on actual or constructive notice of a fact if the defendant knew or reasonably should have known that fact.
  • In order to prevail on his or her§ 1983 claim against a defendant based on a practice or custom, each plaintiff must prove each of the following elements by a preponderance of the evidence:
    • The acts of one or more employees of the defendant deprived the plaintiff of his or her particular rights under the United States Constitution as explained in Instruction No. 21;
    • That employee or those employees of the defendant acted under color of state law;
    • That employee or those employees of the defendant acted pursuant to a widespread or longstanding practice or custom of the defendant; and
    • The defendant’s widespread or longstanding practice or custom caused the deprivation of the plaintiff’s rights by that employee or those employees of the defendant; that is, the defendant’s widespread or longstanding practices or customs were so closely related to the deprivation of the plaintiff’s rights as to be the moving force that caused the ultimate injury.
  • As previously explained, in order to prevail on his or her§ 1983 claim against a defendant, each plaintiff has the burden of proving that the defendant’s acts or failure to act deprived the plaintiff of particular rights under the United States Constitution.
  • Plaintiffs allege that defendants deprived them of their Fourteenth Amendment right to control the public dissemination of images of their deceased family members.
  • In order for a plaintiff to prove that a defendant deprived him or her of this right, the plaintiff must prove … at least one employee of the defendant publicly disseminated one or more images of the plaintiff’s deceased family member or members (with all of you agreeing as to which employee or employees publicly disseminated images of the plaintiff’s deceased family member or members); and the public dissemination of such images shocks the conscience and offends the community’s sense of fair play and decency.
  • For the purposes of this instruction, “public dissemination” means the transmission or display of one or more images of the plaintiff’s deceased family member or members to one or more members of the public. It is for you to decide whether a person to whom an image was transmitted or displayed was a member of the public when the transmission or display occurred.

In November, LA County settled with the family of Christina Mauser, and the family of John, Keri, and Alyssa Altobelli for $2.5 million, with each family receiving $1.25 million. More on those settlements.

Here are the jury instructions and verdict forms.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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