(CN) — The Eighth Circuit vacated a $1.8 million defamation and unjust enrichment award against the estate of “American Sniper” author Chris Kyle, who claimed he knocked down Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura in a bar fight.
A jury found that Kyle fabricated a story in his best-selling book that described the Navy SEAL punching Ventura, whom he referred to as “Scruff Face,” in a 2006 California bar fight after the former Minnesota governor allegedly spoke ill of fallen soldiers. Ventura is also a former Navy SEAL.
Chris Kyle was shot and killed at a Texas gun range in 2013 by a U.S. Marine.
According to the trial judge’s ruling, “American Sniper” released on Jan. 3, 2012 had 3,400 preorders before being published, but 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.”
Ventura says 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.
The $1.8 million judgment – $500,000 for defamation, and $1.3 million for unjust enrichment — represented 25 percent of Kyle’s profits from book sales, and royalties for a movie based on the book.
However, the Eighth Circuit reversed the award Monday, and granted Kyle a new trial because Ventura’s counsel improperly told the jury that Kyle’s insurer would be “on the hook” for any monetary award — only 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,” 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 dissented from the majority’s decision to vacate the defamation judgment and remand for a new trial because of references to insurance.”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. For that reason, I conclude no timely objection was made,” Smith wrote. (Emphasis in original.)
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