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American Sniper defamation payout to ex-governor Ventura thrown out by court

Published 13/06/2016

Chris Kyle, left, and former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, right (AP)
Chris Kyle, left, and former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, right (AP)

A court has thrown out 1.8 million US dollars (£1.27 million) in damages awarded to former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, who said he was defamed by the late author Chris Kyle in the best-selling book American Sniper.

The 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals also sent a portion of the case - Ventura's defamation claim - back to the district court for a new trial, saying Mr Ventura's lawyer made improper remarks and the trial court "clearly abused its discretion in denying a new trial".

Kyle, a former US Navy Seal, is regarded as the deadliest sniper in US military history with 160 confirmed kills. In his book American Sniper, he wrote a sub-chapter called "Punching Out Scruff Face" in which he describes striking Mr Ventura at a California bar in 2006 after he made offensive comments about Seals, including that they "deserve to lose a few" in Iraq.

Mr Ventura, a former Underwater Demolition Teams/Seal member and ex-pro wrestler, sued. He gave evidence at trial that he never made the statements and that the confrontation never happened. He also said the book ruined his reputation in the tight-knit Seal community.

Kyle, who was killed on a shooting range in 2013 by a troubled fellow veteran, gave sworn videotaped evidence before his death that his story was true. The case proceeded against his estate.

In 2014, a jury awarded Mr Ventura 500,000 dollars (£350,000) for defamation and 1.3 million dollars (£910,000) for unjust enrichment. Kyle's widow, Taya Kyle, appealed, asking that the verdict be thrown out or that a new trial be ordered on First Amendment and other grounds. Mr Ventura's lawyers, however, argued that the jury got the verdict right.

In Monday's ruling, a three-judge appellate panel reversed the unjust-enrichment award, saying the theory of unjust-enrichment "enjoys no legal support under Minnesota law" and fails as a matter of law.

The majority of the judges also vacated the defamation award and sent that portion of the case back to court for a new trial.

The majority found that Mr Ventura's lawyers improperly let the jury hear that publisher HarperCollins had an insurance policy to cover a defamation award and lawyer fees. The majority said those comments prevented Kyle's estate from receiving a fair trial and that Mr Ventura's lawyers deliberately referenced a "deep-pocket insurer" to try to influence the jury and enhance damages.

"From our review, these unsupported, improper, and prejudicial statements were not heat of the moment argument, but were strategic and calculated," the judges wrote.

The judges also wrote: "Ventura's counsel's closing remarks, in combination with the improper cross-examination of two witnesses about Kyle's insurance coverage, prevented Kyle from receiving a fair trial."

Judge Lavenski Smith dissented, saying Mr Ventura's lawyers mentioned insurance coverage only after Taya Kyle testified that she would be responsible for damages.

He noted that Mr Ventura's lawyers argued Taya Kyle should not be allowed to "plead poverty if an insurance company is going to pick up the tab".

Judge Smith said any error in allowing Mr Ventura's counsel to ask about insurance was harmless and non-prejudicial. He also found that the 500,000 dollar award for defamation was not excessive.

The hit movie based on Kyle's book did not depict the alleged incident.

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