A year after Elon Musk hit the jackpot when the SEC decided to merely slap his wrist over his infamous "funding secured" securities fraud, the Tesla creator struck legal gold again on Friday afternoon, when a Los Angeles federal jury found that Elon Musk did not defame British cave explorer Vernon Unsworth by calling him a "pedo guy" on Twitter.
“My faith in humanity is restored,” Musk told reporters in the hallways of the courtroom after shaking hands with his lawyer moments after hearing the verdict in the Los Angeles courtroom. He did not address Unsworth, whose team had told the court earlier on Friday the Tesla CEO should pay at least $190 million in damages for his tweets about the diver.
The lawsuit had pitted a 64-year-old financial adviser earning a salary of about $33,000 against one of the richest and most famous men in the world, who told the jury he was worth about $20 billion.... but was "short on cash." The dispute stems from the Tesla and SpaceX chief’s 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.
The jury had been 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.
According to The Guardian, Unsworth’s 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”.
As Bloomberg notes, the four-day civil trial marked the first time that Musk has been called as a witness at trial. The Tesla CEO told the jury the tweet shouldn’t have been taken literally and was fired off in anger after Unsworth, in a TV interview, insulted his effort to help rescue members of a Thai soccer team from a flooded cave in 2018.
It’s another win for Musk, 48, who’s managed to get out of legal trouble relatively unscathed. Musk agreed to step down from his role of chairman of Tesla Inc. for three years in 2018 to settle a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission lawsuit over a tweet the regulator said misled investors. But he’s run Tesla and SpaceX as usual.