Jurors awarded Jesse Ventura about $1.8 million yesterday in his defamation lawsuit against the late author Chris Kyle. They ruled that Kyle defamed Ventura in the bestselling memoir "American Sniper." Kyle wrote about a bar fight with the former governor in his book. But Ventura said the fight never happened.
• July 29: Ventura wins $1.8 million in defamation suit
Some thought Ventura would have a hard time proving his case and were surprised by yesterday's ruling. MPR's Cathy Wurzer spoke with David Schultz who teaches law and political science at Hamline University. Here's an edited transcript of their conversation.
Cathy Wurzer: You know in my journalism classes, proving defamation for public figures should be pretty difficult. But that appears to be not the case in this case. Were you surprised?
David Schultz: I was surprised. Because the standard is from a famous Supreme Court case called New York Times vs. Sullivan, essentially says that you have to show reckless disregard for the truth in a sense that you have to prove that not only were the statements false, but the person knew that they were false. That's an incredibly high standard, and the reason why the standard is so high is to protect the First Amendment right of the public to really engage in free speech and to freely criticize government officials.
Wurzer: Does this case set a precedent then in terms of First Amendment protections?
Schultz: Well it's not clear completely at this point whether it sets a precedent. But it clearly gives us, at least in the mind of this jury, what they think that standard is. It's important to understand something unique about this case is the fact that, had things just stopped with the book --- in the book itself it only refers to "Scruff Face." Ventura is never mentioned by name. And had the book gone out and just left that way, no chance anybody would've been filing for libel because no name was mentioned.
What the real problem was here is when the book publisher and the author went out on sort of a publicity tour to try to promote the book; that's when Ventura's name was brought up. And so what this is suggesting is a couple of interesting things, is that if publishers are now going to promote their books, they have to be as attentive to sort of the publicity tour with the authors out on that tour, as they are with the book itself in terms of fact-checking or a sense of being careful what is actually being said.
Wurzer: The ruling was the split decision. That was pretty unusual.
Schultz: This is incredibly unusual. Now, last week and even as much as a couple of days ago, the guess was it was probably a hung jury, probably going towards a mistrial. Federal rules of civil procedure require unanimous verdict. However there is a possibility, which we found yesterday, that juries could, with the consent of the two legal sides, reach a less than unanimous verdict. This is incredibly rare. It seldom happens, especially after we've gotten through the trial. It might be agreed to before, but not usually at the end. And I thought that was highly unusual, and it's something that I would say most legal observers never saw in terms of coming.
Now, in terms of did it make sense, the defense said that they decided to agree to the strategic reasons. And maybe they thought because they were going to win in a split verdict, maybe they think that they're going to be able to now win on appeal, because that's something very important to think about here, the appeal coming down the line here. But on balance, I didn't think it made a lot of sense for them to agree to a less than unanimous verdict, because, if in fact there was a mistrial, the whole thing would have to start all over again, and Jesse Ventura would have to decide: Does he want to spend all that money to try to run another trial, and hope to get a different verdict? And so, a mistrial would've meant essentially that the defense wins.
The important thing now to think about is the appeal. Because John Borger who was the attorney for the Kyle estate, indicated that they were considering all their legal options, including an appeal, and so it may not be over at this point, because if it goes to an appeal, it goes up to the (United States) Court of Appeals (for the Eighth Circuit), which is a very conservative court, and we might have in a year or year-and-a-half now, an overturning of this verdict. And so, this may be only the first step in what could be a longer process before we get final resolution of this matter.