The Minnesota jury tasked with deciding this case awarded $1.8 million in damages — $500,000 for defamation and $1.3 million for "unjust enrichment" — to Jesse Ventura on Tuesday. The reason for the payout? It involves a "unverifiable" bar fight, a New York Times bestseller, and ... well, it's a long story. Below, we are re-upping our explainer of the case Ventura just won.
Former Minnesota governor and former wrestler Jesse Ventura can thank fighting and politics for most of his career. However, the two halves of his persona have now come together in a far less advantageous way. Ventura sued someone for defaming him by spreading stories about a bar fight Ventura says didn't happen. It gets better -- the target of the suit happens to be dead, and will be played by Bradley Cooper in an upcoming film. And the lawsuit could set a big precedent for how other celebrity libel cases are decided.
It's a long story.
I'm confused. Why should I care about Jesse Ventura?
As we said, he used to be governor of Minnesota.
He often thinks of running for political office again. He thought about running for the Senate seat that Al Franken ended up winning in 2008, and he thought about running for president in 2012. He is also reportedly thinking about running for president in 2016 — and choosing Howard Stern as his running mate. Stern ran in the New York gubernatorial race in 1994.
Ventura is also a bit of a political conspiracy theory buff.
In 2008, he worked with truTV on a show about conspiracy theories. "Ventura will hunt down answers, plunging viewers into a world of secret meetings, midnight surveillance, shifty characters and dark forces," according to the network's summation of the program.
He now hosts a show on Ora, where he "offers his electrifying insight into the nation’s most pressing problems. No suits, no censors, no red tape. Just Jesse Ventura as we like him: bold, brazen, and bare-knuckled."
Ventura has written several books about politics, including "DemoCRIPS and ReBLOODlicans: No More Gangs in Government," "They Killed Our President: 63 Reasons to Believe There Was a Conspiracy to Assassinate JFK," "Do I Stand Alone? Going to the Mat Against Political Pawns and Media Jackals" and "63 Documents the Government Doesn't Want You to Read."
The Harvard University J.F.K. School of Government once chose him as a visiting fellow.
Political relevance established!
Who is the person he is suing?
Navy SEAL Chris Kyle was one of the deadliest snipers in U.S. military history. He had 160 confirmed kills. A New Yorker profile about Kyle, who was killed by a fellow veteran at a Texas shooting range in 2013, described him as "Paul Bunyan in fatigues."
Unsurprisingly, Kyle got a book deal. When he was promoting the bestseller, titled "American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History," Kyle went on “The Opie & Anthony Show,” a popular radio show. The New Yorker described the lawsuit-sparking incident.
On the air, Kyle claimed that he had once got into a bar fight with Jesse Ventura, the former professional wrestler who, between 1999 and 2003, served a term as governor of Minnesota. In the seventies, Ventura was a member of the Underwater Demolition Teams, a predecessor of the SEALs. One night in 2006, he and Ventura were both at an Irish pub in Coronado, at a gathering of seals and their families. According to Kyle, he overheard Ventura talking, loudly, about his opposition to the Iraq War, and asked him to keep his opinions private, out of respect for the families. (Relatives of Michael Monsoor, the SEAL who deliberately fell on a grenade, were in town, for his wake.) Kyle said that, when Ventura told him that the SEALs deserved to “lose a few guys,” he punched him, and Ventura “went down.” After he [Kyle] repeated the story, on “The O’Reilly Factor,” Ventura—who denies disparaging seals, and claims that no altercation occurred—filed defamation charges.
“Being level-headed and calm can last only so long,” Kyle wrote in his book. “I laid him out. Tables flew. Stuff happened. Scruff Face ended up on the floor.”
Ventura claimed that the story is false and has ruined his career. "It came to a screeching halt is the best way I can put it." The Underwater Demolition Team-SEAL Association has been circulating a petition to remove Ventura for dishonorable conduct. Ventura has said it was because of the bar story. The association has said it is because of the lawsuit.
The New York Times summed up Ventura's case last week,
On the stand, Mr. Ventura said the events in the book had never occurred. Mr. Ventura said that he had been at the bar that night — reuniting with old Navy colleagues before a SEAL graduation ceremony the next day — but that he recalled no confrontation and was uncertain whether he had even come across Mr. Kyle in the bar. Mr. Ventura said he was not drinking alcohol that night and has not since 2002, when he was put on blood-thinning medication.
“Nothing unusual has ever happened to me out there,” Mr. Ventura said of his numerous visits to Navy reunions.
In his memoir, Kyle only describes the celebrity in the bar fight as "Mr. Scruff Face." Not until the publicity tour did he reveal a name.
There you have it.
This isn't the first time Ventura has sued, or threatened to sue, someone.
In 2011, Ventura threatened to sue TMZ for a story they published about him tailgating a California driver. He said he was only doing so because the person in front of him was too slow. The lawsuit didn't happen.
Ventura did sue the Transportation Security Administration in 2011 for what he saw as unconstitutional searches. The lawsuit was thrown out by a federal district judge. Ventura vowed to never fly commercial again, and now spends much of the year in Mexico. Minnesota Public Radio reported,
He also said he lost his patriotism and would then refer to the U.S. as the “Fascist States of America.”
“I will never stand for a national anthem again,” Ventura said. “I will turn my back and raise a fist the same way Tommy Smith and John Carlos did in the ’68 Olympics, Jesse Ventura will do that today.”
Ventura briefly threatened retribution against public radio's Garrison Keillor, who wrote many satires about the former governor. Current reported,
Ventura, who is working on an autobiography, first accused Keillor of "cheating" for writing about him without his permission and said he wanted to "get even" over the janitor remark, but he later softened his tone in a Minnesota Public Radio interview, saying, "I could care less. He's an artistic person and very successful at what he does, and he makes Minnesota proud, you know."
So did the bar fight happen?
That's what the case was tasked with finding out. Early in the trial, Laura deShazo, the first witness called by the defense, testified that she saw Jesse Ventura get punched in that California bar. However, the details of where the fight happened and who did the punching were a bit fuzzy. DeShazo says she is sure it happened on the bar patio. Kyle said the fight happened on the sidewalk.
Another witness at the bar said she was introduced to Ventura, who she says didn't show interest in hearing about her son, the first Navy SEAL to die in the Iraq War. "He didn't want to know about my son. All he wanted to do was talk about himself."
The murder trial for the soldier who killed Kyle was also scheduled to happen this year, although it has been delayed.
The defense team for the deceased Kyle tried to prove that "the former professional wrestler and celebrity needed no help from Kyle in sullying his own name," according to a report in the Pioneer Press.
Those ranged from a news conference outside a courthouse in which Ventura declared he was seeking Mexican citizenship to escape the "Fascist States of America" to a book passage that described "an Army run by Christianist extremists" to another passage saying women had to expect some level of harassment on the street.
The trial sometimes went off topic. When Ventura's lawyer asked him to talk about his conspiracy theory television show on the stand, "Ventura began reciting details about the conspiracy to kill President Abraham Lincoln. Judge Kyle cut him off, telling him to answer the questions."
During a trial recess, someone at the courthouse "asked Ventura if he would show his tattoo. The former governor pushed aside his tie, undid two or three buttons and briefly opened his white dress shirt to reveal the tattoo on his chest. One of his lawyers pulled on his shoulder and Ventura turned away, closing the shirt."
What helped Ventura win those damages?
Winning defamation and libel cases in the United States is hard, because of our First Amendment rights. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune interviewed a few constitutional experts about the case. One academic called it "one of the most important First Amendment cases in recent Minnesota history." And how could he win? "He’s got to prove not only that the publication was false and harmed his reputation, but he has also got to prove that it was published with actual malice.”
Another professor confirmed this. “Truth or falsity by itself is not the only issue. Ventura must prove Kyle knew he was writing a lie, or acted recklessly in writing his account.”
University of Minnesota professor Lawrence Jacobs told the Star-Tribune that Ventura always seems to try things “almost certain to fail or just plain without a reasonable chance of success. But I have also learned the lesson not to count Jesse out,” Jacobs said. “He is a magician, and whether it is politics, business or his latest TV career he has consistently surprised us.” Which concisely sums up what happened in the lawsuit.
A ten-person jury decided the case, which was heard in St. Paul, Minnesota.
This story isn't likely to fade soon, despite the trial's end. All thanks to Clint Eastwood.
The director is filming an adaptation of the memoir that started this whole mess in the first place. Bradley Cooper will star as Chris Kyle. "Mr. Scruff Face" is not listed on the cast list.