LOS ANGELES — Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk successfully defended himself in a lawsuit brought by a British cave explorer after a California-based jury found that the billionaire had not defamed the plaintiff by calling him a “pedo guy” on Twitter.
On his way out of the court, the billionaire entrepreneur, who testified earlier this week, said, “My faith in humanity is restored." Vernon Unsworth, the 64-year-old plaintiff, who sat mostly stone-faced through the four-day trial, remained silent as the verdict was read. His legal team had suggested a judgment of $190 million in various damages but in the end could not get the jury to vote in its favor.
The lawsuit stemmed from a series of four tweets that Musk sent in July 2018 that insulted Unsworth, a Brit who had been heavily involved in the rescue of a boys soccer team and their coach from a cave system in Thailand earlier that month. In those tweets, Musk called the man “sus” and a “pedo guy.” This was after Unsworth gave an interview in which he criticized the Tesla CEO's efforts to get involved in the cave rescue by building a submarine tube — which was ultimately never used and never proven to work — to extract the boys.
One juror told BuzzFeed News the decision came down to the notion that a reasonable person could not read Musk's "pedo guy" tweet and determine that it was associated with Unsworth. “The judge laid out five points for defamation as soon as we got to point two, which was about being acquainted [with the defamed person], we decided,” said Carl Shusterman, a Los Angeles attorney who served on the jury. “The people that read Musk's tweet wouldn’t have known who he was talking about.”
During the trial, Unsworth and his lawyers, led by attorney Lin Wood, argued that any reasonable person who saw Musk’s words in the news or on Twitter, where the billionaire had around 22 million followers at the time, would have interpreted the words as direct allegations of pedophilia. Musk and his lawyers, led by attorney Alex Spiro, portrayed the tweets as a tit-for-tat response in “an argument between two men” and defended them as insults, not accusations.
Importantly, Spiro and his team also pointed out that the four tweets in question from Musk never mentioned Unsworth by name. During the trial, Musk made it clear, however, that the tweets were about British caver.
While Musk deleted his July 2018 tweets about Unsworth, who had previously given a CNN interview accusing the Tesla CEO of using the rescue as a publicity stunt, he later doubled down in follow-up tweets and in emails to a BuzzFeed News reporter. In a tweet from August 2018, he had asked why Unsworth hadn’t sued him yet if the accusation weren’t true. He then sent an email to a BuzzFeed News reporter suggesting that Unsworth was a “child rapist” who had taken a 12-year-old “child bride.”
Unsworth’s legal team did not use Musk’s emailed claims to the reporter to establish defamation, but did enter them as evidence to show the billionaire’s state of mind when he wrote his tweets in July 2018. Judge Stephen V. Wilson instructed the jury not to use the emails to the BuzzFeed News reporter to establish defamation, despite their incendiary claims, but did allow them to be used to characterize Musk.
Unsworth's lawyers also showed how the head of Musk’s family office, working on the billionaire’s orders, had hired a private investigator in August 2018 to dig up dirt on Unsworth and attempt to confirm that he was a pedophile.
In the end, the jury of three men and five women in the Los Angeles federal court sided with Musk after a trial that saw the Tesla CEO testify on Tuesday and Wednesday, but remained absent from other trial proceedings until Friday. Legal experts were surprised the case went to trial at all given the propensity of most parties to settle and the difficulty of achieving a favorable plaintiff’s verdict for defamation.
Speaking after the trial, a sullen Unsworth, who was wearing a cave rescue lapel pin, said he respected the jury verdict and would "take it on the chin." Mark Stephens, his UK-based lawyer, framed the decision to move forward with the trial as a case where "billionaire bully" Musk gave them no choice: "sue or true."
Spiro declined comment after trial. Another juror on her way out of the court's elevator following the decision declined to be interviewed, saying only that the case "was very clear."
Wood, while introspective, remained fiery in an interview with BuzzFeed News following the decision. Having called Musk a "liar," a "bully," and a man who looked to capitalize on the rescue dilemma, the Atlanta-based lawyer said he had no regrets about his words.
"I would say everything I said again in a court of law," he said.