After a three-day trial, Elon Musk was found not liable for defamation in a federal court today in Los Angeles, where Musk reportedly owns a cluster of six homes as well as oversees the operations of both SpaceX and Tesla.
British diver Vernon Unsworth had brought the suit against Musk in the fall of 2018 after Musk tweeted that Unsworth was a “pedo guy,” meaning a pedophile, but Musk’s attorney’s argued in court that Musk essentially threw a temper tantrum. After Musk and his employees developed what they called a a mini-submarine or escape pod to save a children’s soccer team from a flooded cave in Thailand in July of 2018, Unsworth — a stranger to Musk and an experienced diver with knowledge of the cave — called the production a “PR stunt” when asked about the effort in an interview with CNN. Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts,” Unsworth told the reporter. Soon after, Musk hit the “tweet” button, publishing the now-infamous insult.
Unsworth brought the suit after Musk doubled down on his accusation, describing Unsworth as a “child rapist” in August 2018 emails to Buzzfeed. He claimed in court this week that since “being branded a pedophile” by Musk, he has felt “vulnerable and sometimes, when I’m in the U.K., I feel isolated.”
Unsworth — who in addition to being a diver is a financial consultant who divides his time between England and Thailand — was seeking damages from Musk to the tune of $190 million, including actual assumed, and punitive damages, and this week, his team tried to make the point that what he was seeking is a pittance for Musk, who was force to estimate his own net worth during the trial and guessed this was $20 billion, based on his Tesla and SpaceX holdings.
During the trial, Musk apologizes at least twice for the “pedo guy” tweet, saying that what he’d really meant was “creepy old man,” which still perverted to our ears. The court, however, ultimately decided Musk’s outburst wasn’t meant as a statement of fact.
CNBC notes, the verdict could “set a precedent where free speech online, libel and slander are concerned” as the case was among the first court cases brought by a private individual over a tweet.
Whether it emboldens Musk is another question. Musk is an avid user of Twitter and this isn’t the first time tweets have landed him in hot water.
A tweet-related battle with the Securities and Exchange Commission last year ultimately cost Musk $20 million and his role as chairman of Tesla for at least three years.
As part of the settlement, Musk also agreed to a condition stipulating that he get pre-approval before sending social media posts containing information that is “material” to Tesla investors. In April of this year, the two sides struck an updated deal that narrowed the scope of what Musk can’t tweet about without first receiving outside approval.