Elon Musk did not defame a British cave explorer when he called him “pedo guy” in an angry tweet, a Los Angeles jury found Friday.
Vernon Unsworth, who participated in the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped for weeks in a Thailand cave last year, had angered the Tesla CEO by belittling his effort to help with the rescue as a “PR stunt.”
Mr. Musk said Mr. Unsworth’s comments in an interview with CNN were an unprovoked attack on his sincere and voluntary efforts to help in the rescue. Mr. Musk had engineers at his companies, including Space X and The Boring Co., develop a mini-submarine to transport the boys. Despite working around the clock to build the sub, Mr. Musk arrived in Thailand late in the rescue effort and the craft was never used.
Mr. Musk, who said his stock in Tesla and SpaceX is worth about US$20-billion, insisted in his testimony that the phrase he tweeted off-the-cuff “was obviously a flippant insult, and no one interpreted it to mean pedophile.”
A jury of five women and three men deliberated for less than an hour in the afternoon in U.S. District Court.
Jury foreman Joshua Jones said the panel decided that Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.”
Mr. Unsworth’s attorney suggested to a federal jury Friday that it award US$190-million in damages to the cave explorer.
Attorney Lin Wood said the suggested award would include US$150-million as a “hard slap on the wrist” to punish the Tesla CEO for what he said was akin to dropping an atomic weapon on his client.
“What in the world would it take to discourage Elon Musk from ever planting a nuclear bomb in the life of another person?” Mr. Wood said.
In his closing argument, Mr. Wood called Mr. Musk a “billionaire bully” who lied when he claimed “pedo guy” only means “creepy old man” and said his apologies to Mr. Unsworth were insincere.
“When Elon Musk tweets something it goes around the world,” Mr. Wood said. “It can never be deleted.”
Mr. Unsworth testified that he had to sue Mr. Musk for defamation because if he didn’t, the allegation would seem true.
Mr. Musk’s lawyer told the jury the tweet did not rise to the level of defamation. Attorney Alex Spiro said Mr. Unsworth also failed to show actual damages.
Mr. Spiro mocked Mr. Unsworth’s claims that he had been shamed and humiliated and that the tweet effectively sentenced him to a life sentence without parole.
Mr. Spiro noted that Mr. Unsworth had been honoured by the Queen of England and the King of Thailand, had his photo taken next to British Prime Minister Theresa May and been asked to speak at schools and contribute to a children’s book, which showed that no one took Mr. Musk’s insult seriously.
“People accused of pedophilia don’t get celebrated by world leaders,” Mr. Spiro said. “Kings and queens and prime ministers don’t stand next to pedophiles.”
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