An Expert Weighs In On PTSD In Vanessa Bryant’s $16 Million Crash Photo Verdict

Kobe Bryant's widow successfully sued LASD and LAFD for emotional trauma. This is how the justice system frequently re-traumatizes survivors.

Vanessa Bryant (2R), wife of the late Los Angeles Lakers basketball player Kobe Bryant, her daughter...

On Wednesday, August 25, a federal jury in Los Angeles awarded $16 million in damages to Vanessa Bryant after finding that the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD) and Fire Department (LAFD) shared photos of the bodies of her loved ones who perished in the tragic January 2020 helicopter crash.

The Calabasas helicopter crash killed Vanessa’s husband Kobe Bryant, daughter Gianna, and seven others in January 2020. Her co-plaintiff, Chris Chester, whose wife and daughter were killed in the crash, was awarded $15 million, making it a combined settlement of $31 million, as reported by Alene Tchekmedyian for Los Angeles Times.

Vanessa’s two-year long legal battle with LASD has been an emotionally tumultuous one. Back in October 2021, Los Angeles County asked her and other family members to submit psychiatric exams “proving” that the shared photos of the crash were emotionally distressful.

Dr. Shaili Jain, a psychiatrist and PTSD specialist currently serving as the Medical Director for Integrated Care at the VA Palo Alto Healthcare system, talked to Scary Mommy about how triggers work for people who have experienced any type of trauma, be it veteran PTSD or bereavement PTSD as in the case with Vanessa.

“What we commonly see in PTSD is that anyone can have a set of triggers, and it’s unique for every situation — it just depends on how the situation played out, and how it impacted that person’s particular brain,” Dr. Jain explains.

That is to say, that even if the notion of the photos doesn’t seem like to a trigger to anyone outside of the circumstance doesn’t mean it isn’t still negatively impacting — and potentially re-traumatizing and re-victimizing the person experiencing PTSD.

During her August testimony, Vanessa tearfully explained how she has panic attacks worrying that the photos will resurface and her daughters will see them. "I live in fear every day of being on social media and these popping up," she testified. "I live in fear of my daughters being on social media and these popping up.”

She explained that when she learned that Los Angeles County officials were sharing photos of the crash that she wanted to “run down the block and scream.”

“It was like the feeling of wanting to run down a pier and jump into the water,” Bryant testified last week. “The problem is I can’t escape. I can’t escape my body.”

Unfortunately, re-victimization and re-traumatization are common for people suffering from PTSD, especially those who try to navigate the justice system while healing.

“Re-traumatization is a very well-documented phenomenon,” explains Dr. Jain. “For example, if you look at rape survivors, they historically have taken legal action against their perpetrators. And they feel like everything they went through, they will be re-victimized through the judiciary process, the legal process, the police process,” Dr. Jain explains, noting that there is often “secondary victimization” happening in the court room as plaintiffs are asked to revisit trauma.

“It’s like you’ve broken your leg, and then someone comes along and kicks it right after you’ve had surgery,” Dr. Jain explains.

Vanessa also recalled talking to LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva the day of the crash and specifically asking Villanueva, “If you can’t bring my husband and baby back, please make sure that no one takes photographs of them. Please secure the area. And he said, ‘I will.’ And I said, ‘No, I need you to get on the phone right now and I need you to make sure you secure the area.’”

As many as eight emergency responders to the Calabasas crash site, including four deputies from LASD and several firefighters from LAFD, took photos of the tragedy. Vanessa learned of the leaked photos from a Los Angeles Times article.

“I bolted out of the house and around to the side so my girls wouldn't see,” Bryant testified Friday. “I was blindsided again, devastated, hurt. I trusted them. I trusted them not to do these things.”

“I expected them to have more compassion, respect,” she said. “My husband and my daughter deserve dignity.”

One of the LASD deputies who took the photos, Douglas Johnson, was supposedly relieved of his duty. but in April 2022, footage of Deputy Johnson kneeling on an inmate’s neck leaked, showing that he was still very much employed by the department. During the trial, Villanueva said that if they deleted the photos, they would avoid discipline. They were clearly not deleted, as Rapheal Mendez Jr., a patron at the Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk, saw a deputy share photos of the crash at the bar.

“I believe they were all deleted,” Villanueva testified during the trial. “Since photos haven't surfaced in the last two and a half years, he said, “I’m pretty sure that’s accurate.” He added, “God knows — that’s about it.”

Words like “believe” and “pretty sure” are vague enough to convince Vanessa and her legal team that Villanueva’s back-and-forth promises to Vanessa of firing people who shared the photos and promising the guilty deputies they could keep their jobs if they deleted the photos is nothing short of a cover-up.

Even if all the photos were truly deleted, there is no simply “getting rid” of triggers — in Vanessa’s case, she was re-traumatized by law enforcement multiple times throughout this whole ordeal as she sought justice. We live in a world that is full triggering situations unique to every person. Dr. Jain emphasized that learning to manage triggers and having these social structures set can help minimize the impact of triggers — which, again, is completely unique for each person.

The jury’s decision was a great step in rectifying a terribly traumatizing experience for Vanessa and the other victims’ families, but unfortunately, not everyone who experiences trauma at the hands of law enforcement has the resources Bryant had. Dr. Jain believes that when people in power sharer their stories — like what happened during the height of the #MeToo Movement — it gives others who might not have the power or privilege to speak out.

“History has shown us whenever it comes to issues like this, it's the people who have power or privilege, if they speak out, then there is a trickle down effect, and that’s the way change starts,” Dr. Jain says.

For those who are trying to heal from a traumatic event without all the resources of a celebrity, Dr. Jain says that building up a solid social structure along or having something to tap into for inner resilience in particularly dark moments. “The only way you can protect yourself from the inevitable re-traumatization is to bolster up your resilience and your social supports, people in your life who are going to support you in a way that you need to be supported, and having regular exposure to them.”

Dr. Jain also notes that people who experience a traumatic event tend to heal faster and deal with fewer PTSD symptoms if they seek social support immediately. “This is very little known fact about PTSD, that you can actually stop people from developing PTSD after trauma, if you give them enough social support, even if they do, even if they do develop PTSD, if they get the social support they need, they will recover at faster rates than people who don't get the social support,” Dr. Jain says.

Like with triggers, Dr. Jain notes that a re-traumatization prevention strategy might look different for everyone. “You know, for some people, it's prayer for some people, it's exercise for some people, it's music, or, you know, maybe you need to see a mental health professional, whatever it is doubling down on those positive things, those reinforcing things and things that restore your resilience.”

And anyone can help someone with PTSD, says Dr. Jain. “The power of social networks to healing PTSD is not people don't realize that, but they don't realize that every single person in the world can play a role in helping someone who's traumatized, just just by being empathic and not re traumatizing them and supporting them. You don't need to have a PhD or an MD to help people who have PTSD.”