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.
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