Elon Musk did not defame British cave explorer, jury finds

Vernon Unsworth’s legal team had sought at least $190m in damages after Tesla CEO called him ‘pedo guy’

Elon Musk did not defame the British cave explorer Vernon Unsworth by calling him a “pedo guy” on Twitter, a Los Angeles jury found Friday.

Musk shook hands with his lawyer at the close of the four-day trial in Los Angeles. He did not address Unsworth, whose team had told the court earlier on Friday the Tesla CEO should pay at least $190m in damages for his tweets about the diver.

“My faith in humanity is restored,” Musk told reporters in the hallways of the courtroom.

“I came here for a verdict and unfortunately it was not what I expected but I respect the jury’s decision,” Unsworth said after emerging from the courtroom about an hour after the verdict was read.

“The challenge that was thrown down by Elon Musk was that if you don’t sue it’s true,” said his lead attorney, L Lin Wood. “We sued because it’s false.”

“I’m unhappy with the verdict because I think that [Unsworth] deserved a different brand of justice, but he had the courage to come to this country where Elon Musk lives and accept his challenge,” Wood added. “He sued him. It’s not true.”

Mark Stephens, Unsworth’s solicitor in the UK, said: “It is a pity that a bullying billionaire has been able to cast such a long shadow, and I just hope that nobody else has to go … toe to toe with Mr Musk.”

The case pitted a 64-year-old financial adviser earning a salary of about £25,000 ($33,000) against one of the richest and most famous men in the world. The dispute stemmed from the Tesla and SpaceX chief’s ancillary involvement in the Tham Luang cave rescue in June and July 2018, which saw 12 young football players and their coach successfully extracted from a flooded cave system by a team of British cave divers.

On 13 July 2018, after the successful completion of the rescue, Unsworth said in an interview with CNN that the rescue pod Musk had delivered to the cave site was a “PR stunt”, adding that he should “stick his submarine where it hurts”. A video clip of the interview went viral, drawing the ire of Musk.

The billionaire entrepreneur responded in a series of tweets on 15 July, suggesting that Unsworth’s presence in Thailand was “sus[picious]” and calling him “pedo guy”.

Musk eventually deleted the tweets and apologized to Unsworth. He apologized again from the witness stand and contended, “I did not accuse Mr Unsworth of being a pedophile.”

While much of the evidence presented to the jury over three days of testimony involved the details of the cave rescue and the aftermath of Musk’s tweets, the jury was tasked with determining whether a reasonable person would understand the tweets to mean that Musk was calling Unsworth a pedophile.

Musk’s attorneys argued that the tweet was not a statement of fact, but an insult, which is considered protected speech. They also attempted to show that Unsworth’s reputation had not been seriously damaged because his efforts in the rescue operation were rewarded with an MBE, a medal from the Thai king, and other honors.

“It doesn’t matter that it’s not the most common insult,” Musk’s attorney, Alex Spiro, said during closing arguments. “You’re free to speak certain things in this country.”

Spiro further argued that Musk’s statement should never have been considered unlawful behavior. “Federal courts are not meant for people who insult each other,” he said.

Unsworth testified that “being branded a pedophile” had made him feel “humiliated, ashamed, dirty”. “I was effectively given a life sentence without parole,” he said. “It hurts to talk about it.”

His attorneys introduced evidence of the broad dissemination of Musk’s tweets, which were reported in 490 English-language articles on 361 websites in 33 countries.

They also introduced evidence of Musk’s behavior after the 15 July tweets, including his hiring of a private investigator to seek proof of Unsworth’s “nefarious behaviour”. The investigator was actually a conman, but Musk relied on his false information when he called Unsworth a “child rapist” in an email to a BuzzFeed News reporter in August 2018.

“Elon Musk is a liar,” said Wood, Unsworth’s attorney, in his closing argument. Musk, who attended court Friday for the first time since his testimony, raised an eyebrow at the remark.

Wood pointed to inconsistencies in Musk’s testimony, tweets, and communication with a reporter. He compared the impact of the “pedo guy” tweet on Unsworth’s life to a “nuclear bomb”, with invisible but lasting affects.

In explaining his suggestion of a $190m in damages, Wood said of the billionaire: “What he needs is a hard slap on the wrist.”

The jury ended up deliberating for less than an hour. The foreman, Joshua Jones, said the panel decided that Unsworth’s lawyers spent too much time trying to appeal to their emotions and not concentrating on the evidence.

“The failure probably happened because they didn’t focus on the tweets,” Jones said after the verdict was announced. “I think they tried to get our emotions involved in it. In a court of law you have to prove your case, which they did not prove.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report


Julia Carrie Wong in Los Angeles

The GuardianTramp

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