The Eighth Circuit for the United States Court of Appeals reversed an award to Jesse Ventura of $1.8 million dollars against the “American Sniper” Chris Kyle’s estate. Jesse Ventura filed a defamation, misappropriation and unjust enrichment claim alleging Kyle fabricated a story about Ventura and a fight that allegedly occurred in October of 2006. Ventura claimed he was defamed by Chris Kyle in television and radio interviews. Kyle asserted Ventura said “he hates America,” the SEALs “were killing men and women and children and murdering,” and the SEALs “deserve to lose a few.”
Numerous witnesses were called to testify at the time of trial, some supporting Ventura’s version of the events and some supporting Kyle’s version of the events.
After five days of deliberation the jury, upon consent of the parties, returned an 8-2 verdict awarding Ventura $500,000 for defamation and recommended damages of $1.35 million for unjust enrichment.
The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the defamation claim finding errors were committed by Ventura’s counsel throughout the course of the trial and in their closing remarks about insurance coverage suggesting witnesses were biased because of an insurance policy issued by the publisher covering costs. In closing argument, Ventura’s counsel stated HarperCollins’s “insurer is on the hook if you find that Jesse Ventura was defamed.”
The Eighth Circuit found the closing remarks about insurance were not minor aberrations made in passing, rather given the repeated efforts to introduce evidence of HarperCollins’s and Kyle’s insurance at trial, the Eighth Circuit found it is difficult to see how Ventura’s counsel’s comments were anything but a deliberate strategic choice to try to influence and enhance damages by referencing the deep pockets of the insurer.
The jury provided an advisory opinion recommending an award of $1.3 million dollars for unjust enrichment. The appellate court found no basis existed under Minnesota law for an unjust enrichment claim.
The matter was remanded to the federal district court for retrial on the sole issue of defamation.
For more information about this topic or another legal matter, please contact Scott Kelly at Farrish Johnson Law Office at 507-625-2525.