‘American Sniper’ Libel Case: MPAA, Media Companies Back Chris Kyle Estate in Appeal

The MPAA and 32 media companies and organizations are supporting the estate of Chris Kyle as his widow appeals a libel verdict in favor of former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.

Last year, Ventura won a ruling for $1.8 million in defamation damages and profits from the sale of Kyle’s book, “American Sniper,” on which the movie was based.

Ventura challenged a chapter in the book that described a confrontation Kyle had with an unnamed celebrity at a California bar in 2006. In the chapter, Kyle describes the confrontation, in which the celebrity disparaged the Navy SEALs, telling him, “You deserve to lose a few,” and that Kyle ended up punching the man out; Kyle later identified that figure as Ventura.

Kyle was shot and killed at a shooting range in Texas in 2013.

In an amicus brief that the studios and media companies filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Minneapolis, First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams challenges the jury’s award of profits from the sale of the book “American Sniper,” saying that it has “no foundation in the common law.” The jury awarded $1.3 million in profits from the sale of the book, and $500,000 in damages for the defamation claim.

Abrams argues that the law of libel “has been clear that while an award of damages could be awarded to victims of libel, the awards would be limited to the recovery of money for the injuries said to have been sustained by plaintiffs and not for amounts claimed to have been received by defendants.”

“An award of profits has nothing to do with the harm suffered by the plaintiff; it is punishment, plain and simple,” Abrams wrote in the brief. “And given the lack of proportion between the offending passage and the book as a whole, in this case it is clear that includes punishment of wholly protected speech.”

He also noted that the state of Minnesota, where the trial was held, views an award of profits as punitive. Yet no punitive damage claim was submitted to the jury, and “none could have been because punitive damages are not permitted against an estate.”

“Yet under the guise of an unjust enrichment claim, they were effectively and improperly awarded here,” he wrote.

Companies signing on to the brief include A&E Television Networks, Buzzfeed, Cox Media Group, E.W. Scripps Co., Gannett Media, Gawker, Hachette, Hearst Corp., the New York Times Co. and Time Inc.

In a statement, the MPAA said that the amicus brief “aims to insure that the law of defamation does not impinge on First Amendment rights” and “is just another example of our industry’s longstanding commitment to the protection of free speech rights of all creators and storytellers.”

Ventura also filed a claim against the book’s publisher, HarperCollins, but that proceeding is on hold pending appeal.

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