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Ventura's $1.8M award in defamation trial ruled reasonable

By Marino Eccher, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 08--What's it worth to tell the world you slugged Jesse Ventura, even if you didn't?

A federal judge ruled this week that $1.3 million is about right.

That's how much a jury awarded Ventura for unjust enrichment last month after finding Navy SEAL-turned-author Chris Kyle fabricated a story about him in the 2012 bestseller "American Sniper."

The July 29 verdict gave Ventura more than $1.8 million in total -- $500,000 for damages to his reputation and career, and the rest for the money jurors felt Kyle made unfairly off the former Minnesota governor.

The damages portion was essentially locked in, but the unjust enrichment award was a nonbinding advisory. It was up to U.S. District Judge Richard H. Kyle, no relation to Chris Kyle, to make the final determination.

In a ruling Thursday, Judge Kyle upheld the jury's award as "reasonable and supported by a preponderance of the evidence."

The story in question -- scrutinized and rehashed from all angles during a two-week trial in St. Paul -- describes Chris Kyle punching out a celebrity in a Coronado, Calif., bar in 2006 after the man badmouthed fallen soldiers at a war hero's wake.

The book identified the man only as "Scruff Face," but Kyle confirmed it was Ventura in promotional interviews after the book was released.

Ventura said the story was fabricated and shredded his reputation. After a week of deliberations, eight on the ten jurors in the case agreed with him.

With the other two dug in and no possibility of a unanimous decision in sight, lawyers for both sides agreed to lower the bar and allow a divided 8-2 verdict. Neither side knew where the jury stood beforehand.

Chris Kyle was fatally shot at a Texas gun range in 2013 along with a friend, allegedly by a troubled Marine whom they were trying to help mentor. Ventura continued the lawsuit against Kyle's estate, represented by his widow Taya.

During the trial, "American Sniper's" publishers said the Ventura story had little to do with the book's astonishing success. Publicist Sharyn Rosenblum testified the book -- billed as the autobiography of the deadliest military sniper in American history -- generated plenty of interest before it was ever associated with Ventura.

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She said she booked the biggest promotional interview, on Bill O'Reilly's "The O'Reilly Factor" talk show, before the story was public.

That interview came just after Chris Kyle first named Ventura on "The Opie & Anthony Show" on SiriusXM radio. By the time Chris Kyle made it to O'Reilly, the judge pointed out, the host went straight to the Ventura anecdote.

"O'Reilly chose to lead with the Ventura story -- not Kyle's record number of kills or his fatal 2,100 yard shot," the judge wrote. After that appearance, the book shot up bestseller lists.

The judge also cited evidence that the media frenzy surrounding the Ventura story struck a chord with publishers. HarperCollins editor Peter Hubbard sent an email with a link to a news article about the story, calling it "priceless."

Rosenblum described in an email how Kyle had been asked specifically to tell the story on the "Fox and Friends" talk show, calling it "hot, hot, hot."

The judge also cited a promotional email sent to the HarperCollins sales team in which Rosenblum included links to Chris Kyle talking about Ventura.

"Given how much media attention the Ventura story garnered and how book sales sky-rocketed after select media appearances in which Kyle recounted and discussed the Ventura story," the judge said, the jury's award was reasonable.

In their closing arguments in the trial, Ventura's attorneys estimated that "American Sniper" made about $40 million -- 1.5 million copies sold across all editions at $27 per book. Using those figures, the Kyle estate would have made about $6 million in royalties.

The estimate didn't account for discounted pricing. The hardcover currently sells for about $23 on Amazon.com, and the e-book edition goes for $10.

The unjust enrichment award -- $1,345,477.25, to be precise -- is a bit less than 25 percent of $6 million. Judge Kyle called that "a reasonable portion."

The book was also made into a movie, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper. It's current set to be released next year. The Kyle estate has received at least $500,000 from its contract with Warner Brothers for the film, though it's not clear if the jury factored that into the award.

The Ventura story is not expected to appear in the film.

Attorneys for the Kyle estate said after the trial that HarperCollins libel insurance would cover the $500,000 defamation award. The unjust enrichment payout, they said, wasn't covered and would come out of the Kyle estate's assets.

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Following the verdict, HarperCollins announced it would pull the Ventura story from all future editions of the book.

The Kyle estate has 30 days to file an appeal in the case.

Marino Eccher can be reached at 651-228-5421. Follow him at twitter.com/marinoeccher.

___

(c)2014 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)

Visit the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.) at www.twincities.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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