Defamation of a Public Figure: Why Ventura Sued an Author and Won

Video courtesy of KSTP TV:
KSTP TV interviews Minneapolis business attorney Aaron Hall on the Jesse Ventura defamation lawsuit against “American sniper” Chris Kyle.

You may rarely see public figures suing for defamation. Even less common is a public figure winning a defamation lawsuit. Public figures have a greater burden to prove in a defamation lawsuit because United States laws protecting freedom of speech and freedom of the press require extra proof in a defamation lawsuit: malice.

Former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura recently made news headlines when he won a defamation lawsuit against a book author, Chris Kyle. A jury decided that Kyle defamed Ventura in his book. In the book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, Kyle told of a time he met Ventura in a bar, heard Ventura make anti-military remarks, and punched Ventura. The jury decided this printed story was defamation, also known as libel when written or slander when spoken.

The Ventura v. Kyle case is noteworthy because public figures rarely sue for defamation and win. This case could encourage other public figures to sue people who publicly defame them.

Attorney Aaron Hall and with KSTP TV's Chris Egert discussing Jesse Ventura v. Chris Kyle defamation case
Attorney Aaron Hall Discussing Ventura-Kyle Public Figure Defamation on TV

Defamation of a Public Figure

Unlike standard defamation, success in a defamation case against a public figure requires four elements (the fourth is unique to public figures):

  1. a false and defamatory statement about the public figure;
  2. communication of that statement to a third party;
  3. a tendency to harm the public figure’s reputation in the community; and
  4. the defendant acted with “actual malice.”

See Stepnes v. Ritschel, 663 F.3d 952, 963 (8th Cir. 2011); accord Richie v. Paramount Pictures Corp., 544 N.W.2d 21, 25 (Minn. 1996).

The burden is on the public figure to prove each of these elements. See Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc. v. Hepps, 475 U.S. 767, 775 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986).

To prove actual malice, the public figure must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant knew the statements were false or acted in “reckless disregard” of whether they were true or false—that is, the defendant “entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication.” See St. Amant v. Thompson, 390 U.S. 727, 731 (1968).

Unjust Enrichment: Benefiting from Public Figure’s Fame & Reputation

Ventura also sued Kyle for unjust enrichment. A defendant has been unjustly enriched if he “has knowingly received or obtained something of value for which [he] in equity and good conscience should pay.”

Unjust enrichment is in a special category of claims called equity. Equitable claims are designed to give a judge authority to bring fairness to a situation if the legal remedy is insufficient. Legal claims may be decided by a jury, but equitable claims are decided by a judge.

Public Figure Defamation vs. Unjust Enrichment

Defamation and unjust enrichment may seem very similar in a case like this. They are, with a key difference: Defamation relates to a public figure’s damages; unjust enrichment relates to the defendant’s benefit.