A long legal battle ended Tuesday as federal jury awarded former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura over a million dollars in damages in his defamation lawsuit against the widow of “American Sniper” Chris Kyle. Ventura sued widow Tara Kyle over her husband Chris Kyle’s depiction of Ventura’s participation in a 2006 bar fight.
From the AP:
A federal jury sided with Ventura in his lawsuit against “American Sniper” author Chris Kyle, who was killed last year in Texas. Though Ventura honed a tough-guy reputation as a pro wrestler and action movie actor, he maintained the legal battle was about clearing his name among his beloved fellow Navy SEALs, not about losing a supposed fight.
Kyle — reputed to be the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history — said in his memoir that he punched Ventura in California in 2006 after Ventura said the SEALs “deserved to lose a few” in Iraq. Ventura disputed that the confrontation, including the punch, ever happened.
An 8-2 jury awarded Ventura $500,000 for defamation and $1.3 million under the theory of unjust enrichment, saying that a portion of Kyle’s profits from his book were gained at the expense of Ventura’s reputation.
After threats of a hung jury plagued the courtroom, lawyers on both sides agreed to accept a verdict if 8 of the jurors agreed as to the result. Although it’s likely that the unjust enrichment portion of the damages will be paid by publisher HarperCollins’ insurance policy, Ventura’s attorneys are expected to go one step further by demanding HarperCollins remove the disputed section from Kyle’s book.
Defamation lawsuits are tricky animals, especially when they’re brought against a public figure. If the matter being sued over is “a matter of public concern” (and this most certainly was, considering the most famous sniper in American history made statements about one of the most famous American governors in history,) we’re looking at charge of “constitutional defamation.” These cases are desperately difficult to win on behalf of a famous plaintiff—-and Ventura’s lawyers won.
The internet is currently on fire over the verdict, blaming everyone from Kyle’s lawyers (They never should have agreed to a non-unanimous verdict!) to the jury pool (How in the heck could a jury find that JESSE VENTURA’S reputation was damaged? The guy is a clown!) for allowing the wife of a heralded soldier to bear the burden of a seemingly ridiculous defamation suit.
The problem with drawing conclusions following media coverage of a jury trial is that reporters tend to leave out the nuances and inconvenient facts that define a case. For example, the media rightly reported that, in order to find in favor of Ventura, the jury needed to prove that Chris Kyle acted with actual malice when he wrote his book; that is to say, that Kyle either knew his statements were false, or acted with reckless disregard as to whether they were false or not. What the media didn’t choose to cover is how difficult it is for an attorney to prove that a defendant acted with actual malice against a public figure.
Elton John lost his 2008 defamation suit against The Guardian, and Tom Cruise settled his against In Touch and Life & Style magazines; they did this not only because they’d already gone public with their fight, but because they knew that proving actual malice in their case would be extremely difficult.
The fact that 8 out of 10 average Americans looked at the facts and allowed Jesse Ventura to come out on top is not insignificant.
It’s likely Kyle’s lawyers knew what was coming, and were relying on a sympathetic jury to rally at least 8 members in their favor. It’s a strategic decision that didn’t work out, but it was nonetheless strategic, and I’m willing to give the attorneys the benefit of the doubt.
Tuesday’s verdict was an upsetting conclusion to a years-long legal battle involving one of America’s best, but remember: nothing that happened in that court room will ever take away from the fact that Chris Kyle was one of the bravest soldiers ever to make the ultimate sacrifice while assisting a brother in arms.
To me, that’s a lot more significant than maintaining your reputation as “The Body.”DONATE
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