Kobe Bryant crash photos scandal costs taxpayers $51 million

Vanessa Bryant fought for the rights of her family and succeeded at every step.

She sued Los Angeles County in 2020, won her jury trial in August and then got a $28.85 million settlement from the county to resolve her claims about what happened after nine people died in a helicopter crash in January 2020, including her daughter and husband, Kobe, the NBA legend.

But that’s only part of the story and cost to county taxpayers. It’s also another example of how the actions of a few public safety officers can have big repercussions on the community they’ve sworn to protect.

The total bill for the county in this case is $51.3 million in settlements, including the settlement for the Bryant family announced on Tuesday.

It also includes a $19.95 million settlement for the family of Chris Chester, who lost his wife and daughter in the same crash.

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Before that, two other families who lost loved ones in the accident got settlements of $1.25 million each – the Altobelli and Mauser families.

Who pays for the settlements and why?

Taxpayers in Los Angeles County are on the hook for this.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved all those settlements since November 2021, not because the county was at fault for the crash itself but because of what county fire and sheriff’s department employees did in response to the crash in the hours and days afterward.  

They were accused of using their personal phones to take and share photos of dead crash victims from the crash scene without having a legitimate business reason for doing so. These first responders instead shared and displayed these death images for their own amusement or as souvenirs, violating the privacy rights of the families, according to the families’ attorneys.

The Mauser and Altobelli families settled before trial. Chester and Bryant elected to go to trial in federal court and won $15 million each in verdicts from a jury of nine. These amounts were to cover $2.5 million for their past emotional distress and $12.5 million each for their future emotional distress after they said they lived in constant fear of these photos resurfacing. 

The settlements include those verdicts and all remaining and future claims of the families.

In its defense, the county said the photos were deleted and never posted online, but ultimately it was held accountable with the settlements.

‘Our failure to prevent those photos from being taken hurt Vanessa Bryant and Chris Chester as well as LA County taxpayers who ultimately had to foot the bill of the massive settlements,’ Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports. ‘It is important that we not only have new policies for our first responders on the books, but those policies will only be as effective as the training that comes along with them. We need all our current first responders and every new hire to be educated about what these new policies mean and trained explicitly in what is expected of them.’

How will this affect taxpayers?

Los Angeles County is the most populous county in the nation with about 10 million people. Such a large tax base in turn fuels the county government’s annual budget of more than $38 billion, which is more than enough to take a hit of $51 million.

But that’s not what taxpayers and their elected leaders want to spend their money on. The $51 million instead is generally ‘absorbed’ in the budget, which trickles down in the form of reduced services for those footing the bill.

‘The tax dollars used for legal settlements could have been used to help schools, improve public safety, address homelessness, or refund money to struggling taxpayers,’ said David Kline of the California Taxpayers Association, a nonpartisan, non-profit tax research and advocacy group.

Kline said the biggest issue is that ‘the Bryant family had to go through this.’

‘Hopefully this case will lead to changes so this sort of thing won’t happen again,’ he said.

Has it led to changes?

The first big change came in 2020, when the California legislature made it a misdemeanor crime for first responders to take unauthorized photos of dead people from crime or accident scenes. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed it into law that year in response to the Bryant crash photos scandal.

At the civil trial in August, the jury also found county agencies liable as it pertained to their failure to prevent this kind of conduct with adequate policies or training.

County Supervisor Hahn then put forward a motion asking the fire and sheriff’s departments to develop new policies explicitly prohibiting first responders from taking photos like the ones in this case as well as requiring new training on those policies. One example of that came last month, when the fire department said in a letter to the county board that it had disseminated a new training module involving photographs from first responders.

A part of that involves emergency incident photography. Among other things, it states: ‘In the event that Department personnel who are authorized to take photographs for the purpose of documenting an emergency incident inadvertently photograph a patient/victim/dead body/dead body parts in the background of the photo, the patient/victim/dead body/dead body parts shall be immediately redacted from the photograph.’

Is this what Bryant wanted?

She has said she wanted ‘accountability’ for what happened and didn’t ask for a specific dollar amount at her jury trial. Her attorney, Luis Li, told the jury then that this kind of despicable conduct has been going on for decades among law enforcement officers, though the county said there wasn’t evidence to support this in Los Angeles.

‘Make it stop,’ he told the jury in August.

The jury’s verdict and other measures resulting from it are designed to do just that, while also helping county taxpayers avoid another financial hit like this. Individual fire and sheriff’s personnel involved in the scandal also were suspended or received discharge notices for their conduct with the photos.

‘She fought for her husband, her daughter, and all those in the community whose deceased family were treated with similar disrespect,’ Li said in a statement Tuesday. ‘We hope her victory at trial and this settlement will put an end to this practice.’

Who is ultimately accountable for these big cost risks?

Elected leaders. This and other scandals didn’t help the reelection campaign last year of L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who was ousted from office by county voters. In this case, shortly after the crash, he suggested the photos be deleted by his deputies to avoid their further spread.

In the end, the conduct of his deputies continued to add to the taxpayers’ cost. Besides the $51 million in the photos case settlements, the county board in November approved $47.6 million to settle five other cases alleging misconduct in his department, including three deputy shootings. Four of those incidents came during his four-year term.

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. Email: bschrotenb@usatoday.com

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