Wednesday, 06 July 2016 09:56
By Jordan Crews
The U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis has thrown out the jury’s $1.85 million judgment in Jesse Ventura’s defamation case against Chris Kyle (the deceased “American Sniper”). The court ruled that Kyle must be given a new trial on the defamation claim and that the unjust enrichment award was improper. (Comment reported on the trial court ruling in February 2015).
Chris Kyle was a sniper for a U.S. Navy SEAL team. After leaving the Navy, he authored American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. In the book, Kyle discussed a scene at a bar located in Coronado, California, where Kyle and his friends were gathered after the funeral of a fellow Navy SEAL. According to Kyle, while at the bar, a “celebrity” (whom Kyle referred to as “Scruff Face”) was making offensive remarks about the SEALs, President Bush, and the war in Iraq. Kyle then apparently approached Scruff Face and told him to “cool it.” Scruff then took a swing at Kyle. Kyle “laid him out” and Scruff Face “ended up on the floor.”
The day after the book was released, Kyle was interviewed on a radio program. During the program, Kyle identified “Scruff Face” as Jesse Ventura, the former governor of Minnesota and former professional wrestler. In the interview, Kyle described the bar incident similarly to the way he did in his book. After the interview, Ventura claimed that Kyle fabricated the entire interaction and sued Kyle for defamation, misappropriation, and unjust enrichment.
During the trial, Ventura’s counsel cross-examined two employees from HarperCollins, American Sniper’s publisher, regarding Kyle’s insurance coverage provided in his contract with HarperCollins in an attempt to discredit the two employees’ testimonies. Ventura’s counsel asked the first employee whether she was aware that Kyle’s attorneys were “being paid by the insurance company for HarperCollins” and that “HarperCollins has a direct financial interest in the outcome of this litigation because they are providing the insurance.”
The second employee was asked whether he was aware of any insurance provision in the contract and asked, “you obtain insurance coverage in the case when an author may get sued for libel or defamation, correct?” In his closing argument, Ventura’s counsel also stated to the jury that HarperCollins’ “insurer is on the hook if you find that Jesse Ventura was defamed” and that “Kyle is an additional insured for defamation under the publisher’s insurance policy.” (by the time of trial Kyle was deceased and his estate was represented at trial by his widow)
The jury awarded damages of $500,000 for defamation and $1.35 million for unjust enrichment. Kyle asked the court for a new trial on the ground that the jury’s awards were “tainted” by the testimony and closing argument regarding Kyle’s insurance coverage. In other words, Kyle argued that this testimony about insurance improperly influenced the jury to enhance damages by referencing an impersonal insurer with deep pockets. Kyle also argued that a new trial was appropriate because the unjust-enrichment award violated Minnesota law. The trial court denied the request, and Kyle appealed.
New trial for defamation claim
The court of appeals had to determine whether a new trial was warranted on the ground that the trial court allowed Ventura to ask questions regarding Kyle’s insurance coverage and to reference the insurance coverage in his closing argument. The Federal Rules of Evidence prohibit the introduction of insurance evidence to show that a person acted wrongfully, but allow it for other purposes, such as proving a witness’s bias.
This evidence can be used to show the witness’s bias when there is “a sufficient degree of connection with the liability insurance carrier to justify allowing proof of this relationship as a means of attacking the credibility of the witness.” A court should carefully consider the risk of prejudice the insurance evidence poses before allowing the admission of that evidence. As the court of appeals explained, it is “utterly repugnant to a fair trial or . . . a just verdict” for the jury to hear that the damages requested will be paid by an insurance company.
The court first considered the insurance testimony elicited from the two HarperCollins’ employees mentioned above. Here, there was no evidence whatsoever that the two employees had any economic tie to HarperCollins’ insurance carrier, and there was no risk that they would have to personally contribute to the payment of any judgment awarded to Ventura. Further, Ventura failed to show that the employees even knew about the insurance coverage. Thus, the risk of bias that existed, if any, was far too remote to outweigh the risk of prejudicing Kyle’s case.
Next, the court considered Ventura’s counsel’s comments during closing argument that HarperCollins’ “insurer is on the hook if you find that Jesse Ventura was defamed” and that “Kyle is an additional insured for defamation under the publisher’s insurance policy.” The court found that these comments were nothing other than “a deliberate strategic choice” to try to influence the jury and enhance damages by referencing an impersonal deep-pocket insurer.
The court thus concluded that Ventura’s counsel’s comments during closing arguments and the improper cross-examination of the two HarperCollins’ employees regarding Kyle’s insurance coverage “prevented Kyle from receiving a fair trial.” Accordingly, the court returned the defamation claim to the trial court for a new trial.
Kyle was not unjustly enriched
The court next considered whether the unjust-enrichment judgment was consistent with Minnesota law. Under Minnesota law, for a claimant to prevail on an unjust-enrichment claim, he must “establish an implied-in-law or quasi-contract in which the defendant received a benefit of value that unjustly enriched the defendant in a manner that is illegal or unlawful.” Here, because Ventura did not have a pre-existing contractual or quasi-contractual relationship with Kyle, the court quickly concluded that Ventura could not maintain an unjust-enrichment claim.
Further, equitable remedies—such as unjust enrichment—are available only when legal remedies are not available. Therefore, even if Ventura could have proven the other elements of his unjust-enrichment claim, other legal remedies were available—namely, money damages for defamation. Thus, the court also reversed the unjust-enrichment judgment. Presumably, this claim will not be a part of any retrial in this case.