LOS ANGELES (AP) – Elon Musk defeated defamation allegations on Friday from a British cave explorer who claimed he was branded a pedophile when the Tesla CEO called him “pedo guy” in an angry tweet.
Vernon Unsworth, who participated in the rescue of 12 boys and their football coach trapped for weeks in a Thailand cave last year, had sought USD190 million in damages for the shame and humiliation caused by the man his lawyer called a “billionaire bully”.
It took less than an hour for an eight-person jury in Los Angeles federal court to reject Unsworth’s claim after a four-day trial.
Musk said the verdict restored his faith in humanity as he quickly left the court with his security detail.
Musk – who deleted the tweet and later apologised for it – had asserted the expression was nothing more than a flippant insult that meant “creepy old man”, not paedophile.
Unsworth had provoked the attack by belittling Musk’s contribution to the rescue – a miniature sub his engineers built that was never used – as ineffective and nothing more than a “PR stunt”. He further earned the ire of the tech whiz by suggesting Musk stick the sub “where it hurts.” Last Friday, it was Unsworth who felt the pain. “I accept the jury verdict, take it on the chin, and move on,” Unsworth said outside court.
Jury foreman Joshua Jones said the panel decided Unsworth’s lawyers failed to prove their case. He said they spent too much time trying to appeal to jurors’ 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.”
Attorney Lin Wood, in an impassioned and at times emotional closing argument, suggested the jury should award USD190 million. Wood said USD150 million of that figure should be a “hard slap on the wrist” to punish Musk for what he said was akin to dropping an atomic weapon on his client that would create problems for years like radioactive fallout.
He suggested the figure would be reasonable given that Musk testified his stock in Tesla and SpaceX is worth about USD20 billion.
But Musk’s lawyer, Alex Spiro, ridiculed the suggested verdict as “numbers being thrown out like The Price is Right.”
Wood said it was important to challenge Musk’s tweet in court even if they didn’t win.
Unsworth had said the statement would appear true if he didn’t sue. “Anybody that knows this man knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that Elon’s accusations were false,” Wood said outside court.
“This was not the justice that he deserved under the evidence.” While Musk was cleared of liability, the trial was just the latest incident where he’s faced legal problems because of troublesome tweets.