ST. PAUL, Minn. - A jury awarded former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura $1.8 million on Tuesday in his lawsuit against the estate of "American Sniper" author Chris Kyle.
On the sixth day of deliberations, the federal jury decided that the author of the 2012 bestselling book defamed Ventura in its description of a bar fight in California in 2006. Kyle, regarded as the deadliest military sniper in U.S. history, wrote that he decked a man whom he later identified as Ventura after the man allegedly said the Navy SEALs "deserve to lose a few."
Ventura testified that Kyle fabricated the passage about punching him. Kyle said in testimony videotaped before his death last year that his story was accurate.
Legal experts had said Ventura, a former Navy SEAL, had to clear a high legal bar to win, since as a public figure he had to prove actual malice. According to the jury instructions, Ventura had to prove with "clear and convincing evidence" that Kyle either knew or believed what he wrote was untrue, or that he harboured serious doubts about its truth.
Neither Ventura nor Kyle's widow, Taya Kyle, who is the executor of his estate, were on hand for the verdict.
Ventura didn't immediately return a message left at his Minneapolis-area home. But his attorney, David Bradley Olsen, said Ventura felt there were "no real winners in this trial."
"He's certainly grateful for the verdict but his reputation with an entire generation of young SEALs may never be repaired," Olsen said, adding, "It is a victory in the sense that the jury did tell the world that Chris Kyle' story is a lie and was a fabrication."
Jurors left the courthouse Tuesday via a back entrance, declining to comment to waiting reporters. The jury told the judge Monday that it didn't believe it could reach a unanimous verdict, but the judge instructed them to continue. Attorneys for both sides agreed Tuesday the verdict did not need to be unanimous and would allow a verdict if only eight of 10 jurors agreed.
Kyle attorney John Borger said the family would consider an appeal. He faced questions about why he agreed to a non-unanimous verdict when the jury appeared close to being hung.
"That was a strategic call that seemed appropriate at the time," Borger said.
After finding in favour of Ventura, the jury was also tasked with awarding damages for any harm to his reputation, humiliation and embarrassment. Jurors had to find that Ventura suffered an economic loss as a direct result of Kyle's statements, or that Kyle used Ventura to profit unjustly.
In his closing argument, Ventura attorney David Bradley Olsen said he believes Kyle's estate has earned more than $6 million from the book, and suggested that $5 million to $15 million would be reasonable compensation for what he said was irreparable harm to Ventura's reputation.
Olsen said Kyle's claims that Ventura said he hated America, thought the U.S. military was killing innocent civilians in Iraq and that the SEALs "deserve to lose a few" had made him a pariah in the community that mattered most to him — the brotherhood of current and former SEALs.
"One-point-five million people have bought the book," he said. "Millions more heard Fox TV trash Jesse Ventura because of it. And the story went viral on the Internet and will be there forever."
Defence attorney John Borger had told jurors in his own closing argument that the 11 witnesses presented by the defence "tell a compelling and consistent story" that backed Kyle's version.
U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle, who is not related to the author, told jurors they weren't charged with determining whether Ventura was punched, but rather whether he was defamed by the remarks Kyle attributed to him.
Chris Kyle included a brief account in his book of a confrontation at a bar in Coronado, California, with a man he called "Scruff Face." In promotional interviews, Kyle identified the man as Ventura, a former SEAL who became a pro wrestler and movie actor before being elected for one term as Minnesota governor in 1998. Ventura was in Coronado for a SEAL reunion and graduation ceremony.
Olsen said inconsistencies in testimony from defence witnesses about what happened the night of Oct. 12, 2006, were so serious that their stories couldn't be trusted. He also pointed out that people who were with Ventura that night testified that the alleged confrontation never happened. And he said Ventura would never have said any of the remarks attributed to him because he remains proud of his and his parents' military service.
Ventura testified that his income as a television personality fell sharply as job offers dried up in the wake of "American Sniper." Borger said Ventura's career as an entertainer was in decline well before that.
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