This week, a jury awarded former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura $1.8 million in his defamation lawsuit against the estate of Chris Kyle. Kyle was a United States Navy SEAL and author of the book American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History.
The basis for the lawsuit was Ventura’s insistence that a 2006 encounter between Ventura and Kyle, that Kyle described in his book, never actually happened. Kyle claimed that he punched Ventura (who wasn’t identified by name in book, but was in later interviews with Kyle) to the floor of a bar after growing agitated by several derogatory comments he said Ventura loudly made about the Iraq War, the U.S. government, and the U.S. military. Kyle said that he was particularly sensitive to the remarks because the family of deceased Medal of Honor winner, Michael Mansoor, was within earshot of Ventura inside the bar. Kyle was there for Mansoor’s wake.
Ventura, who served long ago on a Navy underwater demolition team, acknowledged in court that he was indeed inside the bar that night. He denied, however, that an altercation took place and that he made such comments. He took particular exception to the notion that he would ever say that the U.S. military “deserved to lose a few” – the remark that Kyle claimed provoked the punch.
The lawsuit was initially filed against Chris Kyle himself, but after the highly decorated Navy SEAL was tragically murdered in February of 2013, Ventura surprised and angered many by quickly switching the suit’s defendant to Taya Kyle (Chris Kyle’s grieving widow); she was the executor of her husband’s estate.
I made the point in a column I wrote in July of 2013 that I found the notion of Jesse Ventura suing anyone for defamation of character to be pretty silly. I wasn’t even sure it was possible to defame Jesse Ventura – at least more than the man has already defamed himself over the years.
After all, this is the same Jesse Ventura who has routinely pushed the narrative that 9/11 was an inside job that was carried out by the U.S. government. It’s the same Jesse Ventura who claimed that the World Trade Center collapsed not as the result of being struck by two hijacked passenger jets, but by remote-controlled explosives that were planted inside the buildings by the government. It’s the same Jesse Ventura who insists that the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 not to dismantle Al Qaeda, but to take over the country’s heroin industry. It’s the same Jesse Ventura who tried to sue the TSA after he received a standard security pat-down at an airport. It’s the same Jesse Ventura who, after initially hearing about Chris Kyle’s allegations, suggested that it may have been a body double of him who actually made the derogatory remarks. And again, it’s the same Jesse Ventura who chose to sue the widow of an American hero in her time of mourning for something her dead husband said.
While I concede that my observational definition of defamation certainly differs from the legal one, Ventura sure doesn’t seem like a guy who has ever been particularly concerned with his reputation. In fact, I’d say that if he really did remark that the U.S. military “deserved to lose a few,” it probably wouldn’t even rank as the most offensive thing he’s said in public. I’ve heard him say comparable things to that a number of times while using his soapbox to shame the U.S. government over conspiracy theory committals of an endless number of atrocities.
Prior to the court verdict, Chris Kyle’s defense attorneys stated that it would take 11 witnesses from the bar and a decorated Navy SEAL lying under oath for jurors to side with Jesse Ventura. To the surprise of many, that’s exactly what they did.
It may not be fair for someone not sitting in a courtroom during a trial to second-guess the conclusion reached by the jury, but it sure seems to me like an injustice was committed. Even if the jury disregarded the testimony of the witnesses for the defense who claimed they saw the altercation, Ventura had to show that there was “actual malice” from Chris Kyle to defame his reputation. I don’t know how anyone who has read the relevant passage in Kyle’s book, or had listened to Kyle speak of the incident in interviews, could have possibly reached that conclusion. It was presented as an amusing anecdote; not as an indictment of Ventura’s character.
Regardless, the jury has spoken, and unless an appeal changes things, Ventura will receive a big pay-day. Oddly enough, Ventura has claimed all along that the lawsuit was never about money, even though his lawyer was quoted as saying they were hoping for $15 million in damages. Ventura says he pursued the lawsuit only because he wanted to earn back his reputation with the community that mattered most to him – the brotherhood of current and former SEALs.
The way I see it, one would have to apply for citizenship to Bizzaro World to accept that explanation.
Are we to believe that suing a murdered SEAL’s widow in the wake of her husband’s death is how one ingratiates himself to that group of people? If Ventura really wanted to earn his supposedly damaged reputation back, there was a far better path he could have taken. He could have simply dropped the lawsuit after Chris Kyle’s death, and made a public statement that while he sticks to his account of what happened, he’s not going to punish the remaining family of a decorated war hero who served his country exceptionally and honorably.
That would have been the classy thing to do. It would have been the right thing to do. It would have actually helped his reputation. The problem is that it would have come with no tangible monetary value.
Now, Ventura’s left with an even worse stigma hanging over him than he had before. Instead of being defined by a verdict he believed would prove him right, he’s defined by a level of tastelessness that shows him to be immeasurably wrong.
I hope it was all worth it, Jesse.