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The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals has thrown out a $1.8 million court victory by former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura over Chris Kyle’s book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History.
In the book, Kyle describes punching a “celebrity” who he refers to as “Scruff Face” in 2006 at a bar where some friends had gathered after the funeral of a Navy Seal. In an interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, which happened before Clint Eastwood adapted the book into a mega-successful film starring Bradley Cooper, Kyle said it was Ventura who he had punched. In 2013, Kyle died, survived by his wife Taya.
Ventura denied the incident occurred and sued Kyle and publishers for defamation, misappropriation and unjust enrichment. The case went to trial in 2014, and on the fifth day of deliberations, the jury reached a 8-2 verdict in favor of Ventura on the defamation claim, awarding $500,000 while recommending $1.35 million more for unjust enrichment. The judge adopted the recommendation.
The case then went to appeal where it brought forth the Motion Picture Association of America and some 30 media companies arguing that an award of profits from the book for unjust enrichment would be “unjustified” and have a “potentially crippling” effect on the First Amendment.
In today’s opinion, the 8th Circuit voted 2-1 to set aside the $500,000 defamation award because of improper and prejudicial testimony about Kyle’s insurance. The federal appeals court remanded the defamation claim for a new trial.
It’s the unjust enrichment reversal, though, that’s unanimous and going to be received warmly by media companies, as the ruling decides that damages for defamation constitutes an adequate legal remedy.
“Neither the district court nor Ventura cited any case awarding profits in a defamation case under an unjust-enrichment theory, or even suggesting money damages are an inadequate remedy in a public-figure defamation case,” states the opinion authored by 8th Circuit Judge William Jay Riley. “We find none … We cannot accept Ventura’s unjust-enrichment theory, because it enjoys no legal support under Minnesota law.”
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