Elon Musk. Picture: REUTERS
Elon Musk. Picture: REUTERS

Los Angeles — Jurors are expected to begin deliberating in Los Angeles on Friday in the lawsuit brought against Elon Musk by a British cave explorer who says the Tesla founder defamed him with tweets suggesting he is a paedophile.

The three-man, five-woman US district court jury will likely get the case before noon on Friday, after a federal judge instructs them on the law and attorneys for both men deliver closing statements.

The jurors will be asked to decide by unanimous vote if Musk defamed Vernon Unsworth with three July 15 2018 tweets, and, if so, how much he must pay in damages.

Legal experts are closely watching the proceedings, which is believed to be the first major defamation lawsuit brought by a private individual to go to trial over a tweet.

On Thursday, Unsworth declined to apologise for a July 13 2018, CNN interview in which he said Musk’s offer of a mini-submarine to help rescue a boys’ soccer team from a flooded Thailand cave was a “PR stunt” and the wealthy entrepreneur could “stick his submarine where it hurts”.

Unsworth said his insult was “not to Mr Musk personally”.

“I’m not sure how I need to apologise. It was my opinion at the time and I stand by that opinion,” he said, when cross-examined by one of Musk’s lawyers. It was that interview which Musk has said prompted his “off-the-cuff” tweets, in which he questioned Unsworth’s role in the cave rescue and called him a “pedo guy”, with no evidence.

Unsworth has testified the tweets harmed his reputation by branding him a paedophile and a liar, leaving him “humiliated, ashamed, dirtied”.

He seeks unspecified damages from Musk, who told the court this week his net worth is about $20bn.

The trial has revived discussion of Musk’s erratic behaviour during 2018, when he used Twitter to float a leveraged buyout proposal for Tesla that was scuttled, ultimately paying $20m to settle a US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) complaint.

For most of 2019, Musk, who has nearly 30-million Twitter followers, has largely kept his public comments focused on Tesla’s new models and improved profitability and on the technical progress of his aerospace company, SpaceX.

To win the case, Unsworth must prove Musk was negligent in publishing a falsehood that clearly identified him and caused him harm. He does not need to show Musk acted with “actual malice”, which is much tougher to prove.


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