Elon Musk Wins in Defamation Suit by British Diver

After less than an hour of deliberation, a Los Angeles jury Friday found that Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk did not defame a British diver by calling him a “pedo guy” and “sus,” or suspicious, in a series of July 2018 tweets. In court on Friday, the lawyer for the diver, Vernon Unsworth, had sought $190 million in damages.

“My faith in humanity is restored,” Musk reportedly said after the jury delivered its verdict.

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The twisty road to this week’s four-day trial in a federal courtroom began in the summer of 2018, when a Thai youth soccer team became stranded in a series of underwater caves in the country’s Chiang Rai province. Musk tweeted that he was sending a team of engineer employees to build a miniature submarine that would rescue the children from the caves. When a reporter asked Unsworth, a British-born cave diver based in Thailand and assisting with the rescue, about Musk’s ideas, the diver called them a “PR stunt.” Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts,” Unsworth said.

In response, Musk fired off tweets calling Unsworth a “pedo guy” and “sus.” Though the CEO later deleted the tweets, he doubled down on the insinuation a few weeks later, writing in August that he wondered why Unsworth hadn’t yet sued him if the allegations weren’t true. In September—after, the lawsuit later revealed, Musk’s family office had hired a con man to “investigate” Unsworth—Musk sent an email to a BuzzFeed News reporter suggesting Unsworth was a “child rapist.”

The lawyers for Unsworth argued Musk’s tweets amounted to allegations of pedophilia. In closing arguments, Unsworth’s lead lawyer, L. Lin Wood, said that Musk “dropped a nuclear bomb” on the diver by tweeting those assertions to 22 million followers. Unsworth’s lawyers did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the verdict.

Musk’s lawyers argued that the back-and-forth in the news media and online amounted to a public spat between two men, and nothing more. Musk’s lead lawyer, Alex Spiro of the firm Quinn Emanuel, called the episode a “JDART”: “a joking, deleted, apologized for, responsive tweet.”

Musk himself argued when he took the stand Tuesday that “pedo guy” didn’t actually mean “pedophile,” but referred to a creepy, old man. “This is quite common on the internet,” Musk said on Tuesday, flexing his status as the Most Online CEO. “If you Googled it now, that’s what it would show.”

Ultimately, the case turned on whether the jury believed Musk acted negligently in his tweets. “It was very clear,” a juror reportedly told a BuzzFeed News reporter after the jury announced its verdict.

Critics had admonished Musk for his decision to move forward with a high-profile trial rather than settle. Still, defamation cases can be difficult to win in the US, where courts have given speakers wide-ranging freedom, sometimes even when making accusations that are, ahem, uncouth.

Musk is known for his fast-and-loose approach to Twitter and has been known to pick public fights on the platform. Those spats have landed him in court before. Last summer, after tweeting that he planned to take Tesla private and had secured the funding to do so, Musk was sued by the US Securities and Exchange Commission for making material misstatements to shareholders. Musk and company reportedly tore up a settlement offer from the SEC before finally settling the suit in September. As a result, Musk had to step down as chair of the Tesla board.

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