ST. PAUL, Minn. – Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura won $1.8 million Tuesday in his two-year fight to prove he was defamed by a military sniper and bestselling author who claimed to have punched out Ventura at a bar for bad-mouthing the Navy SEALs.
A federal jury sided with Ventura in his lawsuit against “American Sniper” author Chris Kyle, who was killed last year in Texas. Though Ventura honed a tough-guy reputation as a pro wrestler and action movie actor, he maintained the legal battle was about clearing his name among his beloved fellow Navy SEALs, not about losing a supposed fight.
Kyle — reputed to be the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history — said in his memoir that he punched Ventura in California in 2006 after Ventura said the SEALs “deserved to lose a few” in Iraq. Ventura disputed that the confrontation, including the punch, ever happened.
Ventura wasn’t present for the verdict and didn’t immediately return messages left at his home. His attorney, David Bradley Olson, said Ventura felt there were “no real winners in this trial.”
“He’s certainly grateful for the verdict, but his reputation with an entire generation of young SEALs may never be repaired,” Olsen said, adding, “It is a victory in the sense that the jury did tell the world that Chris Kyle’s story is a lie and was a fabrication.”
Jurors declined to comment to reporters as they left the courthouse. They deliberated for five days before telling the judge Monday they didn’t believe they could reach a unanimous verdict, but were told to keep trying. Tuesday’s resolution came only after attorneys for both sides agreed to allow a verdict if eight of 10 jurors agreed.
John Borger, an attorney for Kyle’s estate, said the family would consider an appeal. He faced questions about why he agreed to a non-unanimous verdict when the jury appeared close to being hung.
“That was a strategic call, which seemed appropriate at the time,” Borger said.
Legal experts had said Ventura had to clear a high legal bar to win, because as a public figure he had to prove actual malice. The jury was instructed that Ventura had to prove that Kyle either knew or believed what he wrote was untrue, or that he harboured serious doubts about its truth.
After Kyle was killed last year at a Texas gun range, Ventura’s lawsuit moved forward with Kyle’s widow, Taya Kyle, as the defendant. She wasn’t in court to hear the verdict. Borger said she was “surprised and upset” when he gave her the news by phone.
The jury awarded Ventura $500,000 for defamation and $1.3 million for unjust enrichment. Borger said the latter figure was subject to review and potential adjustment by U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle, no relation to Chris Kyle.
At least some of that money will be covered by “American Sniper” publisher HarperCollins’ insurance policy. Borger said the $1.3 million for unjust enrichment will have to come from the book profits, but Olsen believes the policy will cover all the damages. Borger said he expects both sides will file papers on that and other issues soon.
Olsen also said Ventura’s side will ask HarperCollins to remove the disputed section from the book.
The section recounts an October 2006 confrontation that Chris Kyle said he had at a bar in Coronado, California, with a man called “Scruff Face.” In promotional interviews, Kyle identified the man as Ventura, who was in Coronado for a SEAL reunion and graduation ceremony. Kyle was at the bar for a wake for a fallen SEAL.
Olsen suggested in his closing argument that the jury award Ventura $5 million to $15 million to compensate him for damage to his reputation. He said Kyle’s claims that Ventura said he hated America, thought the U.S. military was killing innocent civilians in Iraq and that the SEALs “deserve to lose a few” had made him a pariah in the community that mattered most to him — the brotherhood of current and former SEALs.
Borger argued that 11 witnesses presented by the defence told a “compelling and consistent story” that backed Kyle’s account.
Ventura testified that his income as a television personality fell sharply as job offers dried up in the wake of “American Sniper.” Borger said Ventura’s career as an entertainer was in decline well before that.
Associated Press writer Brian Bakst contributed to this report.