Appeals court throws out $1.8 million award to Ventura

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Don Davis

Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — A federal appeals court says Jesse Ventura is not entitled to $1.8 million a lower court awarded him over the recounting of a bar fight the former Minnesota governor said never happened.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday reversed part of the judgment of a St. Paul-based federal court and sent the second part of the case back for a new trial. The case was based on a fight scene reported in Chris Kyle's best-selling book "American Sniper" in which Ventura was later identified as starting a bar fight.

Ventura had sued Kyle's estate, claiming the book defamed him.

The appeals court rejected the lower court's finding that Kyle received unjust enrichment, for which a 2014 jury had awarded Ventura $1.3 million. It ordered a new defamation trial, which had brought Ventura a $500,000 judgement.

Kyle called the fighter in the book "Scruff Face," and referred to him as a celebrity, but later identified the person as Ventura.

Kyle, who was a former military sniper, claimed to have punched Scruff Face in 2006 after he made offensive comments about Navy SEALs. Ventura was a member of the team that later became part of the SEALs elite special forces team and often refers to himself as a former SEAL.

In his trial, Ventura said the fight never happened and he made no anti-SEAL comments.

Kyle's book said the fight occurred in a California bar during a 2006 wake for a SEAL team member. However, Ventura told reporters after the 2014 trial that as a professional wrestler he had fought athletes such as Hulk Hogan and a claim like Kyle made in the book that he knocked Ventura down with one punch was unbelievable.

The book claimed that Kyle "laid him out. Tables flew. Stuff happened. Scruff Face ended up on the floor."

After post-publication interviews revealed that Ventura was Scruff Face, Ventura sued for defamation and unjust enrichment. The suit continued after Kyle's 2013 death.

Appeals court judges wrote that "the trial essentially was a credibility contest between Ventura, Kyle and their respective eyewitnesses." The jury could not reach a unanimous verdict, voting 8-2 in favor of Ventura on the fifth day of its deliberation.

The appeal court's ruling indicated that Ventura attorneys should not have relied on an argument that an insurance company would pay for any damages. The ruling also said that the lower court judge erred in not granting a Kyle estate motion for a new trial.

Ventura's claim that Kyle was unjustly enriched was rejected by the appeals judges. They disagreed with the former governor's "assertion that Ventura conferred a 'benefit' on Kyle by Ventura’s mere existence as a colorful figure who might inspire people to make up stories about him."