Jesse Ventura's $1.8M award tossed out in 'American Sniper' case

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Jesse Ventura (2009 TNS file photo)
Jesse Ventura (2009 TNS file photo)

Jesse Ventura's $1.8M award tossed out in 'American Sniper' case

by: Randy Furst | .
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) | .
published: June 14, 2016

MINNEAPOLIS — The U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals Monday overturned a jury’s decision to award $1.8 million to former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura in a 2014 defamation case.

A three-judge panel threw out the $1.35 million awarded to Ventura for “unjust enrichment,” saying Minnesota law did not allow a payout in this type of case; and it reversed the $500,000 award for defamation, remanding the case to the district court for a new defamation trial.

The decision was a major victory for the estate of former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who wrote the bestselling memoir that Ventura said defamed him. It was also a victory for news organizations, many of whom filed a brief in support of Kyle’s estate, urging that the verdict be thrown out.

It was a serious blow to Ventura, the former professional wrestler, who served as governor from 1999 to 2003.

Ventura contended that a false account of a fight in a California bar in 2006, published in Kyle’s memoir “American Sniper,” ruined his reputation among Navy SEALs, whose reunions he routinely attended after serving with the SEALs during the Vietnam War. Ventura contended that a passage describing an altercation, in which Kyle claimed he punched Ventura, never happened.

Kyle’s widow, Taya Kyle, appealed the jury’s verdict, which came after a three-week federal trial in St. Paul in July 2014. After six days of deliberations the 10-member jury deadlocked. Not knowing which side the jury favored, U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle won agreement from the attorneys on both sides to allow for the rare split decision. The verdict favored Ventura by 8-2.

The appeals court judges unanimously threw out the $1.35 million awarded to Ventura for “unjust enrichment.”

By a 2-1 decision, they reversed the defamation award of $500,000, and ordered the district court to conduct a new trial.

The court found that the unjust enrichment claim was not applicable in Ventura’s case.

In order to prevail on such a claim, Ventura would have had to establish that he had at least a “preexisting contractual or quasi-contractual relationship with Kyle,” the ruling said.

No such contract existed, said the court. “Ventura’s unjust-enrichment claim is not allowed by Minnesota law.”

In addition, the appellate court said, the remedy for unjust enrichment for defamation of public figures was monetary damages for defamation.

However, the appeals court majority also overturned the $500,000 defamation award. It hinged its reversal on a more technical argument, but one that was a centerpiece of the appeal filed by the attorneys for Taya Kyle and her estate.

The appellate court said that Ventura’s attorney, David B. Olsen, was wrong to suggest at trial that any payouts by Taya Kyle would be covered by insurance purchased by HarperCollins, the publisher of “American Sniper.”

Olsen raised the insurance issue in questioning two employees of HarperCollins and during closing arguments.

Raising the issue prejudiced the jury, the 8th Circuit said. Jurors would have less hesitation to issue a substantial defamation award if they were aware that Taya Kyle was covered by an insurance policy, the appellate court said, citing various precedents.

Olsen had argued in court and in his appeal that the publishing contract mentions the insurance policy and Taya Kyle’s attorneys introduced the contract into evidence.

But the appellate court said: “The one-line mention of insurance contained in the lengthy small-print contract merely acknowledges Harper Collins ‘may carry’ insurance. The publishing contract does not establish HarperCollins actually purchased insurance.”

In addition, the two witnesses employed by the publisher, who were questioned by Olsen about insurance when they testified on the stand, knew nothing about an insurance clause, the appeals court said.

The 8th Circuit stated, “We must conclude Ventura’s counsel’s closing remarks, in combination with the improper cross-examination of two witnesses about Kyle’s insurance coverage, prevented Kyle from receiving a fair trial. The district court clearly abused its discretion in denying a new trial. … We remand the defamation claim for a new trial.”

The decision was written by William J. Riley, chief judge of the 8th Circuit, joined by Judge Bobby E. Shepherd.

In a partial dissent, Judge Lavenski Smith concurred with the majority’s decision to reverse the unjust-enrichment award, but argued that the defamation award should be upheld.

Smith wrote that the statement and inquiries about insurance by Olsen were “harmless and nonprejudicial.” He observed that Olsen asked the two publisher representatives only four questions about insurance during the trial, and only after Taya Kyle first testified she would be responsible for paying the judgment “at least as to the misappropriate and unjust-enrichment claims — were Ventura were to prevail.”

In addition, he wrote, there was only a passing reference to insurance during Olsen’s hourlong closing argument.

Wrote Smith, “The $500,000 in damages on the defamation claim is not an excessive verdict; as even the majority concedes, the verdict ‘is probably not beyond the bounds of rationality.’”

In previous interviews, Ventura vowed to move permanently to Mexico where he has a winter home, if he lost the case.

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