Jesse Ventura won his defamation suit on Tuesday against the estate of Chris Kyle of Midlothian, a former U.S. Navy SEAL sniper who said he punched the former Minnesota governor at a bar in front of other SEALs for criticizing the SEALs’ role in the Iraq war.
The federal jury deliberated for six days, and on Monday had told Judge Richard Kyle they could not reach a unanimous verdict as instructed.
But after both sides agreed to accept a less-than-unanimous verdict, the jury voted 8-2 on Tuesday in Ventura’s favor.
Jurors awarded Ventura a total of $1.845 million: $500,000 in defamation damages and $1.345 million for “unjust enrichment” — or to be specific, $1,345,477.25.
Ventura sued Kyle — and after Kyle was killed in Glen Rose last year, continued the suit against his estate — over a brief passage in Kyle’s memoir American Sniper. Kyle wrote that during a 2006 gathering of SEALs at a bar in Coronado, Calif., he decked a man he called “Scruff Face” for saying the SEALs “deserve to lose a few” for their role in the Iraq war.
In promotional interviews for the book, Kyle identified the man as Ventura, a former SEAL who became a pro wrestler and movie actor before being elected for one term as Minnesota governor in 1998. Ventura was in Coronado for a SEAL reunion and graduation ceremony, and acknowleged being at the bar but said the encounter with Kyle never happened and his reputation was ruined by the account.
Legal experts had said that Ventura had to clear a high legal bar to win, since as a public figure he had to prove actual malice. According to the jury instructions, Ventura had to prove with “clear and convincing evidence” that Kyle either knew or believed what he wrote was untrue, or that he harbored serious doubts about its truth.
When Judge Kyle, no relation to Chris Kyle, polled the jurors in the courtroom after the verdict, one man and one woman said they voted no. It appeared the forewoman was one of the two no votes.
‘There are no winners’
Speaking to the media after the verdict Tuesday, attorneys on both sides said Judge Kyle asked them if they would accept less than a unanimous verdict. Ventura’s attorney David B. Olsen said their side would be satisfied with a 6-4 verdict. Chris Kyle’s defense team said they would agree if the vote was 8-2.
At that time, Olsen said, neither the attorneys nor the judge knew what the breakdown was among the deadlocked jurors. He said their decision to accept a split vote was “a roll of the dice.”
Neither Ventura nor Kyle’s widow, Taya Kyle, who is the executor of his estate, were in the courtroom for the verdict.
When he told Ventura that he’d won, Olsen said Ventura replied, “There are no winners in this trial.”
He said that his reputation has been permanently damaged, especially among Navy SEALs. Ventura had served as a member of a Navy underwater demolition crew that later combined with the SEALs.
“We don’t know what others may think, but certainly with this generation of young SEALs, we don’t know that his reputation can ever be repaired,” Olsen said.
Olsen said he did not know how the jury reached the specific dollar amount. He said he would not discuss how the award would be divided among Ventura and his legal team.
‘A strategic call’
Speaking for the Kyles’ defense team, attorney John Borger said the verdict was disappointing and the team will evaluate their legal options in the case. Borger said he called Taya Kyle with the news.
“She was very surprised and very upset,” he said.
Borger said the $1.3 million part of the award is advisory under the federal rules. He said Judge Kyle will take legal briefs from both sides and decide how much will actually be awarded.
Asked if agreeing to a split verdict was a mistake, he said, “That was a strategic call that seemed appropriate at the time.”
“I think it’s a strategic error,” said David Schultz, a professor of law and political science at Hamline University in St. Paul. “I’m surprised that the defense agreed to it.”
Schultz said the defense had nothing to lose with a hung jury. If the jury couldn’t reach a verdict, Ventura would have had to pay to retry the case. That could have cost him much more than $100,000 in additional costs.
Kyle, 38, regarded as the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history, and a friend, Chad Littlefield, 35, also of Midlothian, were fatally shot on Feb. 2, 2013, at a gun range in Glen Rose where they had taken a mentally troubled veteran on an outing.
The vet, Eddie Routh, remains in the Erath County Jail awaiting a capital murder trial.
Ventura sued Kyle before he died, and afterward continued the suit against Kyle’s estate, run by Taya Kyle.
While Ventura was criticized for continuing the suit, and was the subject of a petition signed by Navy SEALs, Olsen said Ventura did not see it as a suit against Kyle’s widow, but rather the insurance company.
During the trial, which began July 8, jurors heard Kyle’s videotaped deposition in which he acknowledged that he removed Ventura’s name from the book because he was afraid of being sued.
Kyle said his co-authors, Jim DeFelice and Scott McEwen, included Ventura’s name in early drafts of the subchapter on the incident, even calling him Jesse “The Body” Ventura, his name from his pro wrestling career.
Down to 25 cents
Jane Kirtley, a University of Minnesota journalism professor, said Tuesday she was not surprised by the verdict, because the longer deliberations went on, the more she thought Ventura had a chance.
She also noted that the jury’s award was “a lot less than [Ventura] asked for.” Ventura had sought from $5 million to $15 million.
Kirtley said the most interesting aspect was the unusual dollar amount for unjust enrichment — down to the quarter.
“They were apparently troubled by what they thought was the exploitation of Ventura,” she said.
As media awaited the lawyers outside the federal courthouse in St. Paul, Sam Goldsmith, a friend of the Venturas, delivered four medium Domino’s pizzas. He said that the Ventura family asked him to order pizzas for reporters because “You sat diligently here for two weeks. I hope the guys enjoy it.”