Brief Fact Summary.
In a chapter of the defendant’s bestselling book, he describes an altercation between himself and the unnamed plaintiff, whom the defendant later named in interviews. The book chapter portrays the plaintiff in a negative light, which the plaintiff claims is defamatory.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
Actual malice can be inferred in a defamation case from a false statement about unambiguous events.
The inference depends for its validity on the premise that the eyewitness could not have perceived and understood anything but the truth.View Full Point of Law
The plaintiff, Jessie Ventura, is a well-known former wrestler, actor, and governor of Minnesota, who also served as a Navy SEAL during the Vietnam War. The defendant, Chris Kyle, was also a Navy SEAL and the author of autobiography American Sniper, the Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. The book was released January 3, 2012 and reached number one on the New York Times’ bestseller list by the end of that month. It was picked up as a film in June 2012. A chapter in the book, entitled “Punching Out Scruff Face,” details an alleged altercation between the plaintiff and the defendant, which the defendant claims happened at a bar during a 2006 wake of the defendant’s comrade Mike Monsoor, who was killed in the line of duty. The book claims that the plaintiff stated that the defendant “deserved to lose a few,” referring to other comrades from the war. The plaintiff is never named in the chapter, but the defendant identified him by name in television, radio, and print interviews. The defendant produced one witness to the fight who confirmed his story. Other witnesses claim this altercation never happened.
Has the plaintiff established a case for defamation?
Yes. The plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to make a case to submit to a jury. The defendant’s motion for summary judgement is denied.
Where the plaintiff is a public figure, which the plaintiff here clearly is, a defamation claim requires (1) a false and defamatory statement about the plaintiff; (2) an unprivileged publication of the statement to a third party; (3) a tendency to harm the plaintiff’s reputation in the community; and (4) the defendant acted with actual malice. The burden is on the plaintiff to prove each of these elements. This case hinges on the falsity of the statements and whether the defendant acted with actual malice. The plaintiff submitted several sworn statements from witnesses at the wake that deny the altercation portrayed in American Sniper, as well as photos from a graduation the next day that show no physical injuries of the sort described in the book. The court finds this evidence to be convincing enough to submit to a jury. The assertion that actual malice cannot be inferred from a false statement is only true if the statement relates to an ambiguous event. The event in question here is not ambiguous—a jury could reasonably conclude that the defendant fabricated the story of the altercation.