An appeals court on Monday threw out a $1.8 million judgment against the estate of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle that that had been awarded in a lawsuit alleging Kyle had defamed former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura in his bestselling book “American Sniper.”
Ventura, a fellow Navy veteran, said that Kyle defamed him in his 2012 book and subsequent interviews by saying the two got into a bar fight in 2006 after Ventura said the SEALs deserved to “lose a few” for their involvement in the Iraq War at a gathering following a SEAL’s funeral. Ventura denied the incident occurred.
A Minnesota jury decided in 2014 that Ventura deserved $500,000 in damages and about $1.345 million in “unjust enrichment,” which is typically awarded in cases in which the court finds someone unfairly or by chance made money at the expense of another, requiring restitution. The decision came after Kyle was murdered on a Texas gun range in 2013, and as Warner Brothers was putting the finishing touches on a film based on Kyle’s book that went on to become a blockbuster.
But in a 26-page ruling, the 8th District of the U.S. Court of Appeals overruled the lower district court. At least seven witnesses testifying on behalf of Kyle’s estate said they heard some of the inflammatory remarks attributed to Ventura, and “offered generally similar accounts of what Ventura said,” according to the ruling. All of those witnesses were current or former Navy SEALs, or friends or family of SEALs. Three people testified on Ventura’s behalf and said they saw no altercation, while acknowledging they were not with him the whole evening.
The court vacated the judgment in part by citing a line of questioning and statements made by Ventura’s counsel about the insurance policy covering Kyle’s book, published by HarperCollins. In particular, statements that any money awarded to Ventura would be paid by the insurance policy, rather than Kyle’s family, were “improper and prejudicial,” according to the new ruling.
The appeals court also found that the district court erred by allowing Ventura’s legal team to ask HarperCollins employees under oath if they were aware that the publisher had paid for an insurance policy that would pay for libel and defamation claims against the Kyle estate. The questions assumed facts that had never been admitted in evidence and made it appear that Kyle’s editor, Peter Hubbard, and publicist, Sharyn Rosenblum, were biased in Kyle’s favor, the higher court found.
“As a matter of basic evidentiary foundation, Ventura never established by direct evidence or reasonable inference that Rosenblum and Hubbard even knew about any insurance coverage or possible insurance payment,” according to the ruling. “Rosenblum and Hubbard had no personal knowledge on the topic and were not qualified to testify on the subject.”
The appeals court also noted that even with the questionable statements that were allowed, the jury struggled to reach a decision in Ventura’s favor. After five days of deliberations, it voted 8-2 in his favor.
The court did note there are questionable details about Kyle’s account of the bar fight, and that photographs taken a day later show Ventura had no visible damage to his face. The trial essentially became “a credibility contest between Ventura, Kyle and their respective witnesses,” and Kyle was prevented from having a fair trial, the new ruling said.
Attempts to reach Ventura and the Kyle family were not immediate successful, and they had no initial comment on social media. Debbie Lee, whose son Marc served with Kyle before getting killed in a firefight, shared a story on Facebook celebrating the decision.
“Sweet justice!” she wrote.
Kyle did not name Ventura in his book, but identified during subsequent media interviews while promoting it. He referred to Ventura in the book as a “celebrity” and “Scruff Face,” and wrote that he was “running his mouth about the war and anything and everything connected to it” while spending time with SEALs who were mourning the death of Michael Mansoor, who was killed in Iraq and posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Kyle recounted that he told Ventura to “cool it,” and the former governor responded by taking a swing at him. Kyle “laid him out,” he wrote.
“Tables flew. Stuff happened,” he wrote. “Scruff Face ended up on the floor.”