Chris Kyle, author of the runaway best-seller American Sniper, was a military hero who killed 160 people during his four tours of duty in Iraq and is now the subject of an Oscar-nominated blockbuster. He was also a fabulist. Before his tragic murder in 2013, Kyle told a number of extremely dubious stories. In one tale, Kyle claimed he killed two carjackers at a gas station southwest of Dallas, and that his driver’s license directed local police officers who questioned him to contact the Department of Defense. Kyle also claimed he traveled to post-Katrina New Orleans with a sniper friend, set up his gun atop the Superdome, and picked off dozens of armed looters.
The 160 kills are confirmed by the Pentagon. But there are absolutely no records of, or witnesses to, the latter stories. They are, perhaps intentionally, unverifiable. But it wasn’t these fantastical tales of vigilante justice that got Kyle into legal trouble. It was another, much less exciting story—one that wasn’t just unverifiable, but verifiably false. That tale, conveyed in a mere three pages of American Sniper, has put Kyle’s widow on the hook for $1.845 million in damages. And it may soon make Kyle’s publishers wish they approached the veteran’s claims with great deal of skepticism.
Kyle’s legal difficulties emerged from a subchapter of American Sniper titled “Punching Out Scruff Face.” In it, Kyle describes beating up a former Navy SEAL (“Scruff Face”) after the SEAL claims American soldiers deserved to die in Iraq. Early drafts of the book identified the SEAL as Jesse Ventura, former governor of Minnesota and famed professional wrestler, but Kyle’s publishers removed the name for fear of a lawsuit. Nonetheless, in a radio interview following the book’s release, Kyle admitted that “Scruff Face” was Ventura, and he repeated the claim soon after on The O’Reilly Factor. American Sniper shot to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list, becoming a smash hit for its publisher, HarperCollins, selling more than 1.5 million copies by July of 2014.
There was, however, a problem: The Ventura story wasn’t true, and Ventura meant to prove it. So he took Kyle to trial, suing him—and, after he died, his estate—for defamation and unjust enrichment. In the United States, defamation cases are extremely difficult to win, thanks to the First Amendment. When allegedly defamatory statements pertain to a public figure, the plaintiff mustn’t just prove those statements were false. He has to prove the defendant made those statements with “actual malice”—that is, knowledge that they were false or with “reckless disregard” for their falsity. Very few defamation plaintiffs can make it over the high bar of actual malice.
Ventura made it. On July 29, 2014, a federal jury returned from six days of deliberations to award Ventura $1.845 million in damages—specifically, $500,000 for defamation and about $1.345 million for unjust enrichment. (In other words, Kyle unjustly profited from defaming Ventura, and so his estate must give Ventura some of that money.) Kyle’s widow, Taya Kyle, promptly filed for “judgment as a matter of law,” asking the trial judge to reverse’s the jury’s verdict because the jury clearly got it wrong. Failing that, she asked for an entirely new trial. The judge denied both requests, defending the jury’s verdict as legally and factually justifiable. Kyle’s widow is currently appealing the decision; her odds of winning appear quite low.
For the Kyle family, then, the legal tribulations surrounding American Sniper are probably wrapping up, and Taya Kyle will likely pay some damages but walk away from the affair with many millions of dollars left to her name. (HarperCollins’ libel insurance, in fact, will cover her defamation damages.) But for Kyle’s publisher, HarperCollins, the nightmare is just beginning. Several months after the verdict against the Kyle estate, Ventura brought another lawsuit for unjust enrichment, this time against HarperCollins. The lawsuit explains that while Kyle is the one who defamed Ventura, HarperCollins played up those defamatory statements in order to boost its sales—and with reckless disregard to the truth of Kyle’s claims.
This suit is the second of Ventura’s one-two punch, and from here, it looks like a knockout. During the first trial, Ventura’s attorneys uncovered records of HarperCollins’ negligence in fact-checking Kyle’s book, as well as evidence that HarperCollins specifically touted the Ventura story to drum up publicity. Kyle’s ghostwriters spoke with only one person who claimed to have witnessed the fight, a friend of Kyle’s who told a different version of the story that lacked Ventura’s offensive remarks. No one from HarperCollins contacted Ventura or his representatives to verify the story. And though Kyle claimed Ventura appeared at a SEAL graduation afterward with a black eye—where “everybody was laughing” and asking “Who beat the shit out of him?”—HarperCollins never asked a member of the graduating class whether they saw Ventura’s injury. (A photograph from the event shows a clear image of Ventura—with no black eye.)
It gets worse for HarperCollins. Despite the tenuous source of the Ventura story, HarperCollins quickly saw it as a publicity gold mine. After Kyle identified “Scruff Face” as Ventura in a radio interview on The Opie & Anthony Show, HarperCollins editor Peter Hubbard wrote in an email that the publicity from the story was “priceless.” HarperCollins publicist Sharon Rosenblum described the Ventura kerfuffle as “hot hot hot,” immediately arranging for Kyle to retell the tale on The O’Reilly Factor. Sales of American Sniper—which, up to that point, were fairly modest—spiked dramatically, apparently in conjunction with interest in the Ventura story. After the O’Reilly appearance, Ventura publicly denied Kyle’s accusations. Yet Rosenblum arranged for Kyle to tell the story again on The Opie & Anthony Show, and HarperCollins printed several new editions of the book that still featured the “Scruff Face” section. (It was finally removed after Ventura won his suit.)
All of this presents a very big problem for HarperCollins. Ventura’s lawyers believe they can prove that American Sniper’s massive success was spurred, at least initially, by interest in the Ventura story. Under normal circumstances, HarperCollins might fight back by arguing that the story is true. But therein lies the brilliance of Ventura’s maneuvering: A jury has already determined that the Ventura tale is false and defamatory, meaning HarperCollins is legally barred from rearguing its veracity. As a result, HarperCollins must instead argue that it did not act with “reckless disregard” for the truth of Kyle’s claims, and that no part of the company’s profits arose from interest in the Ventura story. Those questions, of course, must be left for a jury to decide. But it does not look very good for HarperCollins.
Don’t pity the publishers too much, though. In the midst of this legal drama, the movie adaption of American Sniper has shattered box office records and brought in well over $100 million. HarperCollins is sure to make a killing off royalties from the film, and off sales from the new movie tie-in edition of American Sniper. Even if Ventura wins millions in his second lawsuit, the publishing house may well walk away from this debacle with a healthy profit remaining, just as Kyle’s widow will do. The moral of Kyle’s story, then: It pays to lie.