Tesla CEO Elon Musk leaves a US court in Los Angeles, the US, December 3 2019. Picture: AFP/APU GOMES
Tesla CEO Elon Musk leaves a US court in Los Angeles, the US, December 3 2019. Picture: AFP/APU GOMES

Los Angeles — Elon Musk beat back a defamation claim from a British cave expert who sued the billionaire CEO over a tweet in which Musk labelled Vernon Unsworth a “pedo guy”.

A federal jury in Los Angeles on Friday took about an hour to return a verdict that said Musk’s insult fell short of defamation.

“We were pretty much unanimous from the word ‘go’,” said Carl Shusterman, a 70-year-old immigration lawyer who served on a jury for the first time.

Shusterman said the verdict was straightforward because it was not clear if the tweet was actually about Unsworth, since Musk did not name him. The judge told the jurors that was one of the elements required to establish defamation, Shusterman said.

“My faith in humanity has been restored,” Musk said after the verdict.

It is another win for Musk, who has managed to get out of legal trouble relatively unscathed. Musk agreed to step down from his role of chair of Tesla for three years in 2018 to settle a US Securities and Exchange Commission lawsuit over a tweet the regulator said misled investors. But he has run Tesla and SpaceX as usual.

“It’s the last formal distraction from when Musk went off the Twitter rails in 2018,” said Gene Munster of Loup Ventures. “Putting that to rest, regardless of what the jury decided, is a step forward for Musk.”

Unsworth had sought $190m in damages for the harm he claimed to have suffered from the tweet, and to punish Musk. Musk said he fired off the tweet in anger after Unsworth insulted him and his team in a television interview.

“I respect the jury’s decision,” Unsworth said after the verdict. “I’ll take it on the chin and move on.”

‘Billionaire bully’

His lawyers were less gracious, repeatedly referring to Musk as a “billionaire bully”.

L Lin Wood, one of Unsworth’s lawyers, said he was not happy with the outcome. “He deserved a different kind of justice,” he said. Wood said he has not decided whether to appeal the verdict.

The four-day civil trial featured Wood and Alex Spiro, two heavyweights, squaring off in the courtroom. Wood had represented Richard Jewell, the security guard falsely accused of being connected to the Centennial Olympic Park bombing during the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Spiro, a former prosecutor based in New York, lists rapper Jay-Z, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and several NBA players, including former Knick player Charles Oakley, as former clients.

Spiro issued a five-word statement after the verdict.

“The jury got it right,” he said.

It was the first time Musk has been called as a witness at a trial, despite numerous legal spats, including one with the US Securities and Exchange Commission over a tweet the regulator said misled investors.

Musk told the jury the tweet aimed at Unsworth should not have been taken literally and was sent because the caver insulted his effort to help rescue members of a Thai soccer team from a flooded cave in 2018.

The rescue effort had riveted the attention of the world’s media. Musk and engineers at his companies prepared a mini submarine, built with rocket parts, to help. The children, aged 11 to 16, were saved without the use of the sub.

Submarine spat

The high-profile effort from the celebrity CEO drew derision from Unsworth, who knew the caves well and helped in the rescue effort. He told CNN that Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts” and that it had no chance of working.

Musk responded on Twitter, calling Unsworth a “pedo guy” and adding: “Never saw this British expat guy who lives in Thailand (sus) at any point when we were in the caves.” Sus means suspect, or suspicious.

Later, he asked why Unsworth had not sued him. Musk also hired a private investigator to dig into Unsworth’s personal life and leak information to British tabloids.

Unsworth, a financial consultant who divides his time between England and Thailand, described to the jury the effect the tweet had on him.

“When you combine ‘sus’ and ‘pedo guy’, I took it as I was being branded a paedophile,” Unsworth said on Wednesday. “I feel vulnerable and sometimes, when I’m in the UK, I feel isolated.”

It was a tweet heard around the world. An expert witness for Unsworth told the jury that 490 English-language stories were published mentioning the “pedo guy” tweet, not including stories about the litigation.

Musk, who had apologised to Unsworth on Twitter, did so again in court. But Unsworth told the jury he had nothing to apologise for to Musk.

Musk told the jury he found Unsworth’s comments in the CNN interview wrong and insulting — especially to his team, which he said worked hard to help in the rescue effort — and so he fired back.

“I thought he was just some random, creepy guy that the media interviewed,” Musk said of Unsworth.

Neither man impressed Shusterman. He said there was no need for Unsworth to put down Musk’s mini submarine, and Musk’s response was equally immature.

“I felt it was like two junior high school students fighting,” Shusterman said.

Bloomberg

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