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Jesse Ventura v. The “American Sniper”: A Real-Life Story About Navy SEALS, An Alleged Bar Fight, And A Million Dollar Defamation Lawsuit

American Sniper, a film directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper, recently splashed across the American media landscape. The film tells the story of Chris Kyle, a former Navy SEAL who served in the Iraq War and achieved a record number of confirmed sniper kills. When his military service ended, Kyle wrote a book about his experiences (also titled American Sniper). In 2013, Kyle was killed on a Texas gun range, while he was there with a former U.S. Marine who allegedly suffered from PTSD.

American Sniper has been nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor. Last weekend’s opening box office numbers topped $100 million. On top of all that, American Sniper is the current go-to sound bite for the political media wars, with conservative and liberal commentators weighing in on the morality of the film and Chris Kyle’s military experiences.

For aficionados of the behind-the-scenes stories of famous people involved in legal wrangling, however, Chris Kyle’s story has much to offer. Just this past summer, his estate was slapped with a whopping $1.8 million verdict in a defamation lawsuit filed by Jesse Ventura, the colorful former pro wrestler and former governor of Minnesota. The suit arose out of a portion of Kyle’s book in which he described a bar fight with a former Navy SEAL that Kyle called “Scruff Face,” and whom he later publicly confirmed to be Ventura.

Through a complaint originally filed in the Minnesota District Court for Hennepin County, Ventura stated that the book described an incident where Kyle purportedly punched  Ventura. In the book, Kyle wrote that the fight occurred after Ventura allegedly stated that he hates America, that American soldiers in Iraq were murderers of women and children, and then told Kyle "you deserve to lose a few," referencing the SEALS who'd been killed in action in Iraq. Ventura, however, vehemently denied that the physical altercation took place, that he ever said he hates America, that he had ever denigrated American military personnel, or that he stated the SEALS deserved to lose a few. The complaint included claims for defamation, unjust enrichment, and misappropriation of name and likeness. 2014 Jury Verdicts LEXIS 6256.

The action was removed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, where it was assigned to Judge Richard H. Kyle. During the pendency of the action, Chris Kyle died and his estate was substituted as defendant. The jury trial began on July 8, 2014 and closing arguments took place on July 22. During closing, Ventura asked the jury to return the book profits (estimated at $ 5,000,000 to $ 15,000,000) to him in their verdict. 2014 Federal Jury Verdicts Rptr. LEXIS 159. Deliberations lasted about a week, with the jury sending multiple questions to the court on July 29. According to concurrent news reports, the jury was deadlocked, and the parties agreed to allow a non-unanimous verdict in order to avoid a retrial. On July 29, 2014, the jury reached a verdict, voting 8-2 in favor of Ventura. He was awarded $ 500,000.00 for defamation and $ 1,300,000.00 for unjust enrichment.


For more detailed reading on the lawsuit’s backstory, Minnesota Federal Judge Richard H. Kyle set it all out in a November 2014 decision denying the defense motion for a new trial. Lexis subscribers can access the opinion at this link: Ventura v. Kyle, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 165914 (D. Minn. Nov. 25, 2014). Lexis Advance subscribers can access the opinion at this link: Ventura v. Kyle, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 165914 (D. Minn. Nov. 25, 2014). __________________________________________________________

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