Professional wrestler Jesse Ventura, who fell upon hard times and was forced to lower himself to politics, has won $1.845 million today in a defamation suit against the estate of the late Chris Kyle.
Kyle wrote a my-life-as-a-Navy-SEAL book describing a bar brawl with an unnamed person during a wake for a fellow SEAL; he described this person as disparaging the United States, saying that SEALs deserved what they got, and later went down after one punch from Kyle. Kyle later stated publicly that the punchee was Ventura. Ventura sued, claiming that he didn't say those things and wasn't punched by Kyle. The jury — which heard the late Mr. Kyle testify on video — apparently believed Ventura and didn't believe Kyle. They awarded $500,000 for defamation and the rest for "unjust enrichment," apparently on the theory that Kyle boosted the book — and made $6 million on it — by leveraging the lie.
The legal issues presented are pretty straightforward — it's clear that Ventura is a public figure, and clear that the story Kyle told is a claim of fact that, if false, could be defamatory. For the most part, the parties sparred over whether the events happened, whether Ventura could prove they didn't, and whether Ventura could prove the statements caused him harm. Kyle's lawyers also argued that Ventura could not prove that Kyle acted with actual malice; this strikes me as a difficult argument, since it seems rather self-evidently malicious to lie about witnessing someone bad-mouth SEALs and then about punching them.
If you'd like to know more about the case, Kyle's late-in-trial motion for a directed verdict is here, and Ventura's opposition is here. They do a fairly concise job of stating each side's position and view of the evidence. In addition, here are the jury instructions the court gave, which show you what standard the jury applied in the event that it paid any attention to instructions.
I'm not a fan of Ventura. But I think that if Kyle made up a story about Ventura bad-mouthing SEALs at a wake, and made up a story about punching him out, that's defamatory. That's what the jury apparently believed. Some people think it's terrible for Ventura to pursue a claim against Kyle's estate after Kyle died. If, as Ventura suggests, Kyle leveraged the Ventura issue into $6 million in book sales, I don't share that view.
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