8th Circuit to Review American Sniper 'Scruff Face' Award

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on October 26, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Jesse Ventura's defamation suit has landed at the doorstep of the 8th Circuit. Although the final decision is potentially months away, legal scholars and big business are already at the sidelines waiting with bated breath.

The lawsuit is a direct result of an account that Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (now deceased) claimed took place in a California bar in 2006. In his book, Kyle claimed that the then anonymous "celebrity" Navy SEAL known only as "Scruff Face" spoke offensively about the SEALs and that Kyle just had to straighten him out. The stakes? Only what must be proven to support a defamation claim and the very limits of what is protected speech in America. Opinion pieces on the legal implications make for stimulating reading.

By the way, "Scruff Face" is Ventura.

"Scruff Face" = "the Body"

In Kyle's book, American Sniper (also the basis for the film), he recounts an incident in which "Scruff Face" inappropriately told Kyle "You deserve to lose a few [comrades]," at fellow SEAL's wake. Kyle later stated that "Scruff" was actually a nickname for Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura. Kyle claimed that Ventura took a swing at him, and Kyle "laid him out ... on the floor."

Lawsuit Time

The allegations are embarrassing for Ventura on a few fronts. First, Ventura is a former SEAL himself and these allegations portray him in a highly uncouth light. Second, Ventura is a former Professional Wrestler and, at 6' 4", probably pretty hard to push around even in mid 50s. 

In response, Ventura's lawsuit sought damages for defamation, appropriation and other counts, including unjust enrichment. The award totaled $1.8 million. The award is noteworthy because, as a public figure, Ventura's attorney had to prove that Kyle had to prove with "clear and convincing evidence" that Kyle had acted with "actual malice" in defaming the former Minnesota Governor -- a much higher than your usual run-of-the-mill defamation. Ventura has consistently called Kyle's story a fabrication.

Slip of the Tongue?

Kyle's estate has appealed the decision and it is now at the 8th Circuit. Kyle's estate (Chris Kyle died in 2013 a Texas shooting range) has asked the Appeals court to overturn the lower court's verdict or, alternatively, order a new trial because Ventura's lawyer allegedly suggested to the jury in closing arguments that the award would be paid out of insurance rather than Kyle's estate.

Courts are generally reluctant to allow such statements under the theory that such statements would unfairly affect the jury's objectivity. Judge Ray Riley agreed that Ventura's lawyer crossed "over the line" with the comment and requested legal precedent for the statement.

Moving to Mexico

Steve Karnowski of AP reports that Ventura has stated that he will probably move to Mexico if he loses his case on appeal. "I don't think I'd want to live in a country where you can profit from wrongdoing ant he courts allow that,".

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