Is $1.8m award in Jesse Ventura vs Chris Kyle justified?

Chris Kyle, Jesse Ventura, American Sniper
Chris Kyle, Jesse Ventura, American Sniper

WASHINGTON, July 29, 2014 – A Minnesota jury awarded the former Governor Jesse Ventura (63) $1.845 million in damages after deciding that US Navy Seal Chris Kyle had defamed Ventura in 2006. The award includes $500,00 in defamation and $1.345 for “unjust enrichment” damages. Unjust enrichment refers to one person making money at the expense of another.

The suit stems from Kyle’s best-selling book, “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History.” Kyle, who had more than 160 confirmed kills as a sniper serving four tours in Iraq, was killed in 2013 when former Marine Eddie Ray Routh, whom he was mentoring through PTS, shot Kyle and his neighbor Chad Littlefield at a Texas gun range. Kyle, 38 at the time of his death, served four tours in Iraq and was awarded two Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars with Valor, two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals, and one Navy and Marine Corps Commendation.

Kyle became chief instructor training Naval Special Warfare Sniper and Counter-Sniper teams after leaving the Navy in 2009 and he authored the Naval Special Warfare Sniper Doctrine, the first Navy SEAL sniper manual. He left the Navy in 2009.

In the book, Kyle claims that he encountered a person he identified as “Mr. Scruff Face” when visiting a Minnesota bar mourning the death of Navy SEAL and future Medal of Honor recipient, Master at Arms 2nd Class Michael Monsoor.

Kyle claimed that “Scruff Face” starting running his mouth about the war and everything and anything he could connect to it,” including President Bush and SEALS “were doing the wrong thing, killing men and women and children and murdering,” the man said, according to Kyle’s book.

Kyle alleged he asked the man to keep it down, but that “Scruff Face” responded by taking a swing at him and “all hell broke loose.”

“Being level-headed and calm can last only so long,” Kyle said in his book. “I laid him out. Tables flew. Stuff happened. Scruff Face ended up on the floor.”

Kyle later said in media interviews while promoting his book that “Scruff Face” was Ventura, who served in the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams during the Vietnam War era. The UDT units were later merged with the modern SEAL teams in the 1980s.

Ventura testified that he had been inside the bar but denied Kyle’s written claims, including that Ventura had said the SEALs deserved “to lose a few.”

Kyle also wrote that he had punched Mr. Ventura; Mr. Ventura said that never occurred. No record of charges being filed against Kyle for the alleged assault could be located.

U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle (no relation to Chris Kyle) instructed the jury not to determine the actual events but to decide whether the Governor had been defamed by Kyle’s remarks.

Ventura claimed that after the publishing of the book, he lost status with young Navy SEALS and that offers for work came to a “screeching halt” as a result. In addition, Clint Eastwood is making American Sniper into a movie starring Bradley Cooper, which would have undoubtedly served to further defame the Governor if the alleged story, which Ventura claims is wholly false, was allowed to continue.

During the trial Kyle’s lawyers said Ventura’s career had simply “faded.”

Legal experts had given Ventura, who enjoys status as a public figure, little chance of winning as he had to prove actual malice with “clear and convincing evidence” that Kyle either knew or believed what he wrote was untrue, or that he harbored serious doubts about its truth.

“Ventura is going to have to prove falsity … but the harder part is proving actual malice,” said Raleigh Levine, a law professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. “It has to do with what you know about the truth – that you actually knew that what you were saying was false or that you recklessly disregarded the truth.”

Both sides offered conflicting witnesses to the event.

Jurors were able to watch a videotaped deposition from Mr. Kyle, who defended his writings.

After Kyle’s death, Ventura continued the lawsuit, saying that he had asked Kyle to admit he made up the story and apologize. As Kyle refused, Ventura told jurors that a lawsuit was the only remedy to the damage caused by the false claims.

Ventura, who was not in the courthouse when the verdict was read, said, through his attorney:

“He wanted me to express his sentiment that there are no real winners in this trial,” David B. Olsen, his lawyer, told a throng of reporters. “He’s certainly grateful to the jury for their verdict, but his reputation with an entire generation of young SEALs may never be repaired and that’s why he says that there’s no winner here.”

Ventura has previously said the case isn’t about money. “It’s about clearing my name. It’s a lie.”

Possibly donating that money to Wounded Warriors or another veterans group would help lessen the PR beating Ventura has taken as a result of Kyle’s book and the ensuing law suit.

If upheld, the award will be paid by Kyle’s estate. The executor of the estate is Kyle’s wife, Taya. Ventura attorney David Bradley Olsen said that Kyle’s estate has earned more than $6 million from the book, and that it stands to gain additional undisclosed profits from the upcoming movie directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper.

“One-point-five million people have bought the book,” said Olsen. “Millions more heard Fox TV trash Jesse Ventura because of it. And the story went viral on the Internet and will be there forever.”

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