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Ventura's 'American Sniper' Reward Cut Down to Size by 8th Circuit

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By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on June 17, 2016 12:59 PM

It appears that former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura's recent $1.8 million victory against the estate of Chris Kyle of American Sniper fame will be reduced following a ruling by the Eighth Circuit. The overturned award related to disputes over Ventura's defamation win, which the circuit found had been tainted with improper testimony of insurance.

Obviously, the MPAA and other producers reacted warmly to the Eighth Circuit's ruling.

"Scruff Face" Debacle

Ventura's suit found its nexus when U.S. Sniper Chris Kyle alluded to a 2006 incident when Ventura (anonymously referred to as "scruff face" in Kyle's book) got punched in the face by the author for making disrespectful comments. Kyle died in 2013 and is survived by his wife, Taya. Ventura sued the Kyle estate, the publishers, and other parties for unjust enrichment, defamation, and misappropriation.

Ventura Victory

The jury found 8-2 in favor of Ventura and awarded him some $1.8 in damages: $500,000 for the defamation claim and another $1.3 for unjust enrichment.

But the Eighth Circuit overturned the $500,000 damages award related to defamation. The court's concern was what took place at trial: Ventura's attorney sought to impeach the publishers' witnesses by making a connection between them and Kyle's insurance policy -- that is to say, that they had an interest in the outcome of the case.

Unfortunately, it soon became suspected that the jury was more willing to inflate an award in favor of Ventura because of the typical jury tendency to feel that no party is injured when an insurance company must foot the costs. For the court to allow any intimation that Taya would not be injured because insurance would swoop in was "prejudicial error."

More important, the applicable law did not support the damages number, casting even more doubt on the appropriateness of the jury's decision. "Neither the district court nor Ventura cited any case awarding profits in a defamation case under an unjust-enrichment theory, or even suggesting money damages are an inadequate remedy in a public-figure defamation case," the court said. "We find none ... We cannot accept Ventura's unjust-enrichment theory, because it enjoys no legal support under Minnesota law."

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