WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday extinguished a $1.8 million defamation award against the estate of "American Sniper" author Chris Kyle, who claimed he knocked down Jesse Ventura, a former wrestler and governor of Minnesota, in a bar fight.
Kyle was and Ventura is a former Navy SEAL. Referring to the latter as “Scruff Face” in his best-selling book, Kyle said they got into a 2006 California bar fight after Ventura supposedly spoke ill of fallen soldiers.
Ventura sued for defamation, saying he was at the bar, but the fight never happened. He presented photos of himself taken the next day that showed no obvious injuries. There was also no police record of any fight occurring at the bar that night, although Kyle claimed in interviews that police watched the entire incident.
"American Sniper" – released on Jan. 3, 2012 – had 3,400 preorders before being published and quickly skyrocketed to the best-seller list after its author detailed the incident with Ventura on numerous radio and television shows, including "The O'Reilly Factor."
About a year later, Kyle was shot and killed at a Texas gun range by a U.S. Marine.
A federal jury ultimately ordered Kyle’s estate to pay Ventura $1.8 million – including $500,000 for defamation and $1.3 million for unjust enrichment. The damages represented 25 percent of Kyle's profits from book sales, and royalties for the film adaptation of “American Sniper” starring Bradley Cooper.
Ventura petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari last year after a divided panel of the Eighth Circuit reversed his award. In granting the Kyle estate a new trial, the federal appeals court in St. Louis said Ventura's counsel had improperly told the jury that Kyle's insurer would be "on the hook" for any monetary award. Kyle had no insurance policy.
"Given Ventura's repeated efforts to introduce evidence of HarperCollins's and Kyle's insurance at trial, it is difficult to see how Ventura's counsel's comments were anything other than 'a deliberate strategic choice' to try to influence and enhance damages by referencing an impersonal deep-pocket insurer," U.S. Circuit Judge William Riley said, writing for the panel's 2-1 majority.
The panel also found no basis to award Ventura any money on his unjust enrichment claim.
"We reject Ventura's assertion that Ventura conferred a 'benefit' on Kyle by Ventura's mere existence as a colorful figure who might inspire people to make up stories about him," Riley said.
While Kyle may have benefitted from the additional promotion surrounding the Ventura vignette, Ventura is limited to winning damages for defamation, the panel ruled.
Judge Lavenski Smith wrote in dissent that the insurance remarks were harmless."The case was already 'submitted to the jury' at 11:59 a.m. before Kyle's counsel moved for a mistrial based on improper closing argument,” Smith wrote (emphasis in original). “For that reason, I conclude no timely objection was made.”
Per its custom the U.S. Supreme Court did not issue any statement Monday in denying Ventura’s petition for certiorari.
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