ST. PAUL, Minn. — Jesse Ventura won his defamation case against the estate of author Chris Kyle, a former U.S. Navy SEAL who said he punched out the former Minnesota governor for criticizing the SEALs’ role in the Iraq war.
The jury awarded a total of $1.845 million: $500,000 in defamation damages and $1.345 million for “unjust enrichment” — or to be specific, $1,345,477.25.
Jurors could not reach a unanimous verdict, as instructed. Instead, with the consent of both sides, they voted 8-2 in Ventura’s favor.
Ventura was not in the courtroom when the verdict was read.
U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle said federal rules require a unanimous verdict but allow for a split verdict if both sides agree.
One man and one woman voted no on verdict when all jurors were polled in the courtroom. It appeared the forewoman was one of the two no votes.
The jurors deliberated for six days in the case, which began July 8.
On Monday they sent Judge Kyle a note that they could not reach a unanimous decision. The judge told them to “give it one more shot.”
Speaking to the media after the verdict Tuesday, attorneys on both sides said Judge Kyle asked them if they would accept less than a unanimous verdict. Ventura’s attorney David B. Olsen said their side would be satisfied with a 6-4 verdict. Chris Kyle’s defense team said they would agree if the vote was 8-2.
At that time, Olsen said neither the attorneys nor the judge knew what the breakdown was among the deadlocked jurors. He said their decision to accept a split vote was “a roll of the dice.”
When he told Ventura that he’d won, Olsen said Ventura replied, “There are no winners in this trial.”
He said that his reputation has been permanently damaged, especially among Navy SEALs. Ventura had served as a member of a Navy underwater demolition crew that later combined with the SEALs.
“We don’t know what others may think, but certainly with this generation of young SEALs, we don’t know that his reputation can ever be repaired,” Olsen said.
He said Ventura might make a public statement later, but he did not know when.
Olsen said he did not know how the jury reached the specific dollar amount. He said he would not discuss how the award would be divided among Ventura and his legal team.
Speaking for Chris Kyle’s defense team, attorney John Borger said the verdict was disappointing and the team will evaluate their legal options in the case. Borger said he called Chris Kyle’s widow, Taya, with the news. “She was very surprised and very upset,” he said.
Borger said the $1.3 million part of the award is advisory under the federal rules. He said Judge Kyle will take legal briefs from both sides and decide how much is to be awarded.
Borger said attorneys for the Kyle estate continued to believe that the 11 witnesses who testified on their side gave compelling statements.
Asked if agreeing to a split verdict was a mistake, he said, “That was a strategic call that seemed appropriate at the time.”
“I think it’s a strategic error,” said David Schultz, a professor of law and political science at Hamline University in St. Paul. “I’m surprised that the defense agreed to it.”
Schultz said the defense had nothing to lose with a hung jury. If the jury couldn’t reach a verdict, Ventura would have had to pay to retry the case. That could have cost him much more than $100,000 in additional costs.
Ventura sued Chris Kyle, a former SEAL sniper, who wrote in his bestselling memoir, “American Sniper,” that he punched out a “celebrity” former SEAL at a bar in 2006 for saying the SEALs “deserve to lose a few” for their role in the Iraq war. He later identified Ventura in media interviews. Ventura said Kyle fabricated the incident, and his reputation was ruined by Kyle’s account.
After Kyle died in 2013, Ventura continued the lawsuit against Kyle’s estate, run by his widow, Taya.
While Ventura was criticized for continuing the suit, and was the subject of a petition signed by Navy SEALS, Olsen said Ventura did not see it as a suit against Kyle’s widow, but rather the insurance company.
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University of Minnesota journalism professor Jane Kirtley said Tuesday she was not surprised by the verdict, because the longer deliberations went on, the more she thought Ventura had a chance.
She also noted that the jury’s award was “a lot less than (Ventura) asked for.” Ventura had sought from $5 million to $15 million.
Kirtley said the most interesting aspect was the unusual dollar amount for unjust enrichment — down to the quarter. “They were apparently troubled by what they thought was the exploitation of Ventura,” she said.
As media awaited the lawyers outside the federal courthouse in St. Paul, Sam Goldsmith, a friend of the Venturas, delivered four medium Domino’s pizzas. He said that the Ventura family asked him to order pizzas for reporters, because, “You sat diligently here for two weeks. I hope the guys enjoy it.”
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