I recognize this is a Minnesota wage and hour blog, but I would be remiss to not blog about the decision stemming from Minnesota today – Ventura v. Kyle. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion today, throwing out former Minnesota Governor, Jesse Ventura’s, $1.3 million unjust-enrichment judgment; vacating his $500,000 defamation judgment; and remanding the defamation claim for a new trial.
What happened? On January 3, 2014, Chris Kyle (now deceased), released a book he wrote titled, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. In the book, Kyle stated he punched a “celebrity”, who he referred to as “Scruff Face”, after that celebrity supposedly made anti-American statements. Thereafter, in interviews, Kyle identified “Scruff Face” as Ventura. Ventura denied the altercation, claiming it was all a fabrication. Ventura sued Kyle under Minnesota law for defamation, misappropriation, and unjust enrichment. Kyle won the misappropriation claim, but lost the others at trial. The jury awarded Ventura $1.3 million in damages for the unjust enrichment claim, and $500,000 for the defamation claim.
So what went wrong for Ventura? The Court held that during the course of the trial, Ventura’s counsel improperly cross-examined two witnesses regarding Kyle’s insurance coverage, and again noted the insurance coverage in closing remarks (stating, the “insurer is on the hook if you find that Jesse Ventura was defamed”). The Court held that these statements, heard by the jury, prevented Kyle from a fair trial as to the defamation claim. Rule 411 of the Federal Rules of Evidence (the Rules lawyers have to play by in a Federal lawsuit), prohibits the use of insurance evidence to prove whether a person acted wrongfully – but can be used for other reasons – not applicable here. The reasoning is not a shocker. Economic ties to insurance coverage may skew a jury, believing there is a deep, uninterested pocket.
As for the unjust-enrichment judgment, the Court held it is inconsistent with Minnesota law, as there was no pre-existing contractual or quasi-contractual relationship between Kyle and Ventura, and in any event, other remedies were available (i.e. the defamation monies). Accordingly, that judgment was reversed (Kyle wins, no retrial).
So what’s next? Well, Ventura may indeed retry the defamation claim, or may decide to call it what it is, and move on. Or, the parties may decide to settle it, agreeing on an “amicable resolution” short of additional litigation. That’s lawyer speak for – settle the case before more attorneys’ fees and costs are incurred and disruption to the parties’ lives. Only time will tell…let the speculation begin.