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Did Chris Kyle Lie About Ex-Gov Jesse Ventura?

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By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on October 20, 2015 12:53 PM

Jesse Ventura is known for many things -- wrestling, acting, and politics most notably. But concern for his reputation in the navy has been driving him to court lately. Ventura, a former Navy SEAL, last year successfully sued ex-SEAL and author Chris Kyle for an anecdote in his book American Sniper and Kyle's estate is appealing the judgment today.

Ventura says Kyle ruined his reputation with others in the elite military unit by writing lies in his book. Last year, the ex-wrestler won a $1.8 million judgment against Kyle's estate. Kyle's wife appealed and free speech is expected to be key to oral arguments that federal justices will hear today.

Sniper Shoots Wrestler

Kyle wrote in his book that in 2006 he punched out "Scruff Face" -- later identified as Ventura -- for making disparaging remarks during the wake of a former SEAL at a California bar. He claimed that Ventura expressed a desire for SEALs to die in Iraq. Ventura denied the remarks or that the incident happened at all.

Meanwhile, Kyle -- known as the deadliest sniper in US military history, with 160 confirmed kills -- insisted in videotaped testimony recorded before his death that his story was true. That is critical because it goes to the burden of proof. One major issue on appeal is whether Kyle was concerned with the truth or falsity of the tale he told about the famous wrestler-governor.

Although attorneys for Kyle's estate did reportedly corroborate the deceased's version of the story with witness accounts, a jury last year found for Jesse Ventura. He was awarded $500,000 damages for the defamation claim and $1.3 million of the profits from American Sniper based on the author's unjust enrichment.

Proving Actual Malice

On appeal, Kyle's estate claims that the lower court judge incorrectly instructed jurors on the meaning of actual malice. That is the standard applied to the defamation of public figures. It is deliberately more difficult to prove than defamation for private individuals.

To show that Ventura was defamed, lawyers had to prove Kyle either lied about the incident altogether or showed a reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the story. Actual malice in this instance does not mean ill will as we commonly understand malice.

And that is just what the attorneys will argue about today. Twelve legal scholars wrote a friend-of-the-court brief explaining that the court simplified the definition of malice when instructing the jury and that getting it right is essential to preserving First Amendment protections. Otherwise, they say, we risk eroding the right to speak freely about people of public importance.

The unjust enrichment judgment and a statement about Kyle's publisher's defamation insurance are also being challenged on appeal.

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