The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit handed down a major tort ruling in throwing out the $1.8 million judgment awarded to former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. Ventura alleged that he was defamed in the late author Chris Kyle’s bestselling book “American Sniper.” The court cited various errors at trial, including a faulty instruction on the actual malice standard for defamation and the misuse of unjust enrichment as a basis for the damages. The trial showed clear and frankly surprising errors by both Ventura’s counsel and the trial judge.
Kyle was a sniper for a United States Navy Sea, Air and Land (SEAL) team — made famous after his death in the movie “American Sniper.” His book, “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History” included a subchapter entitled “Punching Out Scruff Face.” It described punching out Scruff Face for making offensive remarks about the SEALs at a gathering following the funeral of a SEAL killed in combat. Kyle later revealed “Scruff Face” was James Janos, better known as Jesse Ventura. The alleged fight occurred at McP’s, a bar in Coronado, California. Kyle wrote: “Scruff started running his mouth about the war and everything and anything he could connect to it. President Bush was an asshole. We were only over there [Iraq] because Bush wanted to show up his father. We were doing the wrong thing, killing men and women and children and murdering. . . . Scruff said he hates America.” He said he told Ventura to “cool it” but that Ventura took a swing at him. Kyle said that he “laid him out. Tables flew. Stuff happened. Scruff Face ended up on the floor.”
Ventura, however, denied a fight ever occurred and denied making the statement. He sued Kyle in a diversity action under Minnesota law for defamation, misappropriation, and unjust enrichment. Both sides produced witness accounts. The jury found in favor of Ventura on the defamation claim, awarding $500,000 in damages, but found in Kyle’s favor on the misappropriation claim.
The court adopted the jury suggested award in 2014 of $500,000 for defamation and $1.3 million for unjust enrichment against Kyle’s estate. The Eighth Circuit has now tossed that award.
One of the most surprising parts of the trial was Ventura’s counsel’s statement during closing argument that HarperCollins’s “insurer is on the hook if you find that Jesse Ventura was defamed” and “Kyle is an additional insured for defamation under the publisher’s insurance policy.” First-year law students are taught that it is entirely improper to make such an argument before a jury. It is astonishing to see it made in a major, high-profile trial. The Eighth Circuit found that the comments were clearly calculated and intentional by counsel. The trial court also failed to act to properly correct the error of counsel.
The court then found as a matter of law that no unjust enrichment claim could be maintained:
Under Minnesota law, “to prevail on a claim of unjust enrichment, a claimant must establish an implied-in-law or quasi-contract in which the defendant received a benefit of value that unjustly enriched the defendant in a manner that is illegal or unlawful.” Caldas v. Affordable Granite & Stone, Inc., 820 N.W.2d 826, 838 (Minn. 2012). We agree with Kyle that “Ventura cannot maintain a claim for unjust enrichment because he had no pre-existing contractual or quasi-contractual relationship with Kyle.”
The decision is an embarrassing blow to Ventura’s counsel who committed a clear and shocking error. It is also an embarrassing reversal for U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle, no relation to Chris Kyle.
Here is the opinion: Ventura decision