Jury Finds Jesse Ventura's Reputation Susceptible To Harm

Professional wrestler Jesse Ventura, who fell upon hard times and was forced to lower himself to politics, has won $1.845 million today in a defamation suit against the estate of the late Chris Kyle.

Kyle wrote a my-life-as-a-Navy-SEAL book describing a bar brawl with an unnamed person during a wake for a fellow SEAL; he described this person as disparaging the United States, saying that SEALs deserved what they got, and later went down after one punch from Kyle. Kyle later stated publicly that the punchee was Ventura. Ventura sued, claiming that he didn't say those things and wasn't punched by Kyle. The jury — which heard the late Mr. Kyle testify on video — apparently believed Ventura and didn't believe Kyle. They awarded $500,000 for defamation and the rest for "unjust enrichment," apparently on the theory that Kyle boosted the book — and made $6 million on it — by leveraging the lie.

The legal issues presented are pretty straightforward — it's clear that Ventura is a public figure, and clear that the story Kyle told is a claim of fact that, if false, could be defamatory. For the most part, the parties sparred over whether the events happened, whether Ventura could prove they didn't, and whether Ventura could prove the statements caused him harm. Kyle's lawyers also argued that Ventura could not prove that Kyle acted with actual malice; this strikes me as a difficult argument, since it seems rather self-evidently malicious to lie about witnessing someone bad-mouth SEALs and then about punching them.

If you'd like to know more about the case, Kyle's late-in-trial motion for a directed verdict is here, and Ventura's opposition is here. They do a fairly concise job of stating each side's position and view of the evidence. In addition, here are the jury instructions the court gave, which show you what standard the jury applied in the event that it paid any attention to instructions.

I'm not a fan of Ventura. But I think that if Kyle made up a story about Ventura bad-mouthing SEALs at a wake, and made up a story about punching him out, that's defamatory. That's what the jury apparently believed. Some people think it's terrible for Ventura to pursue a claim against Kyle's estate after Kyle died. If, as Ventura suggests, Kyle leveraged the Ventura issue into $6 million in book sales, I don't share that view.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

Comments

  1. says

    As an admitted pro wrestling fan during the 1980s (attended Wrestlemania I at MSG), I think the statements (if false) were clearly libelous. Ventura built his reputation as a wrestler, an announcer and later a politician in large part on his service as a a member of the Navy BUD/s (predecessors to the SEALs). For Ventura, in particular, to be accused of cheering the death of a Navy SEAL would be extremely damaging to his reputation.

    If Noam Chomsky were to sue on the same grounds. I am not certain that the result should be the same.

  2. says

    I can't say I'd vote for Ventura but I've enjoyed him in movies. And it's fun to watch him in interviews.

    Saw him once on Hannity. Hannity tried to shout him down. He's used to the guys he tries to shout down not being pro wrestlers.

  3. htom says

    There's gossip about Jesse's service (or lack thereof, or whether he was a real SEAL, or …) back from when he was running for Governor. I voted for him and lost track of the details long ago. I actually thought this was more of the same, although why someone would want to bad-mouth Jesse now was strange. There was talk on the local noon news today that maybe the jury was going to hang, and what would happen then. I'm a little surprised the verdict is so high, and suspect Jesse would have rather had trial by combat, even today.

  4. naught_for_naught says

    Murum Aries Attigit

    It's unfortunate that Mr. Kyle was murdered, but that doesn't change the fact that Mr. Ventura was damaged, and he is right to pursue his remedy in court.

  5. Fred says

    Htom,
    He was a real SEAL. The issues been obfuscated by people who do not like him. He was a SEAL who served on a UDT team, rather than a SEAL Team. The SEAL community has been rather clear in that UDT team SEALs are SEALs.

  6. says

    Same people who think people shouldn't sue peoples estates, also think that banks shouldn't pursue a dead person's liabilities.

  7. Oldav8r says

    One of Ventura's arguments was that his reputation with the SEAL community was injured. From what I have heard from members of that community he has done more damage to himself by pursuing this case, right or wrong, than he received from the original book. A sort of military version of the Streisand effect.

  8. Trent says

    Given what I read in the court filings I'm not surprised the jury found for Ventura, I think I would have if I was on the Jury. Jessie had photo's that night, and the next day of himself with fans and other seals and no bruise from being punched is visible. Considering Jessie was on blood thinners he would have bruised (I'm on them myself) if he'd be punched. Also Kyle claimed the police responded to the incident by Ventura fled the scene, but the police say they have no record of a reported incident. There are other damning things that are independent sources tied to neither party that are clearly in Jessie's favor when you throw out both sides friends saying it did or didn't happen.

    The whole punching Ventura incident is what drove the book sales, Kyle went on dozens of news programs talking about it. I'm glad Jessie got vindication, though the damage is done and he'll never likely be haunted by these allegations for the rest of his life.

  9. EPWJ says

    The anger is somewhat misplaced, he pursued it while Kyle was alive, it was crystal clear what he was claiming Kyle did. Also the Kyle family according to some UNVERIFIED sources, were not financially disadvantaged and the legal bills for Ventura were not covered by the settlement.

  10. Davey says

    Trent, I realize that this is a legal blog. However,

    1. Using your logic… Kyle didn't damage Jesse's reputation – Jesse had already torched it long before Chris came on the scene. Here are a couple of Anderson Cooper's tweats:

    I cannot believe that Jesse Ventura successfully sued the widow of a fallen Navy SEAL. Has he no shame?
    — Anderson Cooper (@andersoncooper)

    @MichaelHeyman69 dude, I saw Jesse Ventura’s conspiracy theory tv show once, he’s done quite a good job of trashing his own name.
    — Anderson Cooper (@andersoncooper)

    There's a good argument to be made that this "victory" had further damaged Jesse Ventura's self-inflicted reputation.

    2. There's the whole problem with the factual accuracy of the case. Here's a recent Jesse Ventura quote:

    “I can’t go to UDT-SEAL reunions anymore because that was the place I always felt safe, and who will be next to throw me under the bus?” Ventura said Tuesday. “I’d have to spend my time looking over my shoulder.”

    Frankly, Jesse's fibbing. I've read first-hand accounts that Jesse's been declared persona-non-grata by his peers and he's not welcome at the reunions, while most of the folks who knew Chris call him trustworthy and believe the story. If you can find some real SEALs in amongst all the pretenders these days, ask them.

    Jesse has a fact-checked history of lying and I think he got away with it this time.

    3. Finally, there's the whole "It's still being taken from the widow" thing.

    If there's a lesson here – it points out that the law is only an approximation of justice.

  11. says

    Look, I have doubts about how much Ventura's reputation can be harmed.

    But I think the "you can't sue the widow" narrative is bullshit.

    When you sue someone and they die, you either drop the case or you amend it to name their estate. If the poor widow or widower will be left penniless maybe you decide to stop out of mercy. But if the decedent recently made $6 million off of the book you say is actionable, and you think they made it largely by leveraging the defamation of you, then absolutely you go after the estate. The widow may be left with $3M rather than $6M.

  12. nerdbert says

    There are some of the pictures of Ventura that the jury saw here: http://kstp.com/news/stories/S3524889.shtml?cat=1

    They clearly show no injuries on Ventura's face, which is probably the deciding factor in whom the jury believed. Ventura's an ass and loud-mouthed idiot, but I'm afraid I agree with the jury that Kyle's story is less than believable.

  13. Doctor X says

    Agree with Ken.

    I disagree with pretty much all of Ventura's conspiracy mongering to a visceral level. I can understand his opposition to the Iraq might anger serving and recently serving veterans. His "Tw00fer" stance probably angers Afghanistan veterans.

    However, I doubt he would state what Kyle claimed he stated given the pictures shown. I do not think they would tolerate him at the time Kyle claimed he made his statement.

    I also agree he has every right to go after an estate that earned a considerable amount of cash based on this allegation. As the hilarious-be-prepared-to-waste-your-time satirical site Duffleblog notes, writing about is one of the top post-military professions of a SEAL. The set Kyle's book apart from the rest.

  14. Andrew Norris says

    The problem I have, is there's certain rules you follow once part of the community that Jesse Ventura states (I'm being as precise as possible) he's a member of. By going after the ESTATE, aka, the family of Kyle, he broke faith. You may or may not agree with the verdict (I don't know the case, will not offer a view), but as part of the community he was part of, or so he states he is/was, he broke their internal traditions. That's why a lot of people feel he should have dropped it ONCE Kyle was dead. Before that, generally no one cared. Putting aside any actual _harm_, it's the appearance of harm to the family that has people upset and angry at him. In this case, he'd have been better suited in dropping the suit, making some comment about how the dispute was between him and Kyle, and he wasn't going to drag others into it. He'd have not only repaired his reputation, but enhanced it. Realistically, he's lost far, far more than he's gained by this suit, and from public relations point of view, it's a disaster. The Ruling might be right, but in public view? Mmmhmm. That is why people are saying he should have dropped it. NOT because he was right or wrong, just because the appearance of beating up on a widow. Bad PR, there.