High-tech entrepreneur Elon Musk took the witness stand at his defamation trial on Tuesday, testifying that his inflammatory Twitter message at the centre of the case was sent in response to an “unprovoked” insult he received from the man now suing him.
Mr. Musk, the billionaire chief executive of electric car maker Tesla Inc., was the first witness to testify in the lawsuit brought by a British cave diver who gained fame for his leading role in the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand last year.
The diver, Vernon Unsworth, says Mr. Musk, who also founded the rocket company SpaceX, falsely labelled him a pedophile on Twitter and should pay punitive and other damages for harming Mr. Unsworth’s reputation.
The case stems from an offer Mr. Musk made to furnish a mini-submarine from SpaceX to assist in the cave rescue in July, 2018.
Mr. Unsworth told CNN on July 13, 2018, three days after the rescue was completed, that Mr. Musk’s offer was a “PR stunt” and that Mr. Musk should “stick his submarine where it hurts.”
Two days later, Mr. Musk lashed out at Mr. Unsworth in a series of tweets, including one which called the cave diver a “pedo guy.” Mr. Musk later apologized for the comment, which Mr. Unsworth called a lie.
Mr. Musk was called after a jury was selected to hear the case and the two sides delivered opening statements.
Mr. Musk said he was merely responding in kind to Mr. Unsworth’s remarks. Those comments were “an unprovoked attack on what was a good-natured attempt to help the kids,” Mr. Musk testified. “It was wrong and insulting, and so I insulted him back.”
“I thought he [Mr. Unsworth] was just some random creepy guy,” Mr. Musk added. “I thought at the time that he was unrelated to the rescue.”
The judge explained the case hinges on whether a reasonable person would take Mr. Musk’s Twitter statement to mean that he was calling Mr. Unsworth a pedophile.
To win the defamation case, Mr. Unsworth needs to show that Mr. Musk was negligent in publishing a falsehood that clearly identified the plaintiff and caused him harm. “Actual malice” on Mr. Musk’s part does not need to be proven because the judge has deemed Mr. Unsworth a private individual rather than a public figure.
Although the case does not involve Tesla, Mr. Musk’s Twitter habits have long been under close scrutiny, with investors and regulators expressing concerns about his tweets.
With 29.8 million followers, Mr. Musk’s Twitter account is a major source of publicity for his Palo Alto, California-based electric car company, which does not advertise.
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