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Jesse Ventura v. American Sniper: Unjust enrichment as a remedy in defamation cases


** FILE ** In this March 2, 1999 file photo, then-Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura presents his first State of the State address to a joint session of the legislature at the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Tom Olmscheid, File)

Ventura v. Kyle (D. Minn. Nov. 26, 2014) is the latest in ex-pro wrestler/Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura's defamation lawsuit against the estate of Chris Kyle, the late author of American Sniper, the Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. The case is mostly about the factual dispute, but there's an interesting legal twist: Ventura sued not just for damage to his reputation from a passage in Kyle's book, but also for unjust enrichment, on the theory that the allegedly false and defamatory passage increased Kyle's profits.

The jury awarded plaintiff $500,000 for defamation, and $1,345,477.25 on the unjust enrichment theory. And the court held that this is constitutionally permissible:

Defendant also argues that allowing Plaintiff to recover damages via unjust enrichment, above and beyond those awarded by the jury for defamation, would run afoul of the First Amendment. True, the Supreme Court recently recognized that even some knowingly false speech is protected under the Constitution. See United States v. Alvarez, 132 S.Ct. 2537, 2551 (2012) (holding unconstitutional the Stolen Valor Act, which criminalized falsely claiming to have won the Congressional Medal of Honor). But defendants enjoy no carte blanche to lie with impunity. And Defendant is simply wrong to claim the First Amendment requires limiting the damages available for actionable false speech to the plaintiff's loss. See, e.g., id. at 2547 ("Where false claims are made to effect a fraud or secure moneys or other valu[able] considerations, … it is well established that the Government may restrict speech without affronting the First Amendment.") (emphasis added); see also Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 349 (1974) (punitive damages available for defamation when defendant knew statement was false or recklessly disregarded its truth).