On June 13, 2016, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a $1.8 million jury verdict in a defamation lawsuit brought by former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura against former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Kyle, now deceased, included a brief description of a bar fight with Ventura in Kyle’s bestselling memoir “American Sniper” (later made into a movie). Ventura claimed the story, in which he was referred to as “scruff face” but not by name, was false. He sued Kyle’s estate for defamation, misappropriation, and unjust enrichment, alleging damage to his reputation following the book’s publication and Kyle’s subsequent media interviews. After five days of deliberation, the jury found in favor of Ventura on two of the three counts, and awarded him $500,000 in damages for defamation and $1.35 million for unjust enrichment.
On appeal, the Eighth Circuit reversed and remanded the defamation judgment back to the District Court for a new trial while simply reversing the judgment for unjust enrichment as a matter of law. The Appellate Court remanded the judgment on the defamation claim because it found the District Court abused its discretion by denying Kyle a new trial in response to his numerous objections to Ventura’s prejudicial use of evidence that the claim was covered by insurance, which may have biased the jury, especially in light of the size of the verdict. Ventura’s attorneys argued, in part, that Kyle’s widow opened the door to discussion of insurance by “poor mouthing” which is essentially claiming that a defendant does not have the means to pay a potential judgment. The Appellate Court rejected this argument.
The Eighth Circuit threw out the claim of unjust enrichment based on the lack of a preexisting contractual or quasi-contractual relationship between Ventura and Kyle, which is a requirement for such claims under Minnesota law. The Court noted that the amount Ventura claimed he was due from Kyle’s profits from the book, which he argued was based on his likeness, were properly and exclusively addressed by the misappropriation claim (which was not successful) or the defamation claim.
In a partial dissent, Judge Lavenski Smith concurred with the majority’s decision to reverse the unjust enrichment award, but argued that the defamation award should be upheld, finding the evidence to be non-prejudicial.
The decision highlights an often overlooked requirement for unjust enrichment claims under Minnesota law. It also showcases the challenges involved in defending any defamation lawsuit, including but not limited to determination of the measure of damages. The error that ultimately took down the former wrestler and governor, and his counsel, however, was one that could have occurred in any litigation involving insurance coverage, and in this regard the decision stands as a reminder to all litigators to tread carefully when discussing insurance coverage before a jury.
About the Author:
Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A. is a Minnesota business and litigation firm located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Their business and litigation attorneys can be reached at 612.455.0500.