After deliberation that lasted less than an hour, a Los Angeles jury has found Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk not guilty in a defamation suit filed by the British diver Vernon Unsworth. In a series of tweets last year, Elon Musk had called him a “pedo guy”, for which Unsworth sought about $190 million in various damages.
This four-day trial was a result of the issues between the two that took place in the summer of 2018. When a Thai youth soccer team got stranded in 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.
After the rescue, in which Unsworth’s expertise and knowledge of the caves proved instrumental, for which he is credited as being a leader of the rescue effort, a reporter asked Unsworth about Musk’s ideas. The diver called them a “PR stunt” and added that Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts.”
In response, Elon Musk started posting 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.
The lawsuit later revealed that Musk’s family office had hired a con man to “investigate” Unsworth and Elon Musk had also sent an email to a BuzzFeed News reporter suggesting Unsworth was a “child rapist.”
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.
On the other hand, 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 frim Quinn Emanuel, called the episode a “JDART”: “a joking, deleted, apologized for, responsive tweet.”
In his testimony during the defamation trial this week, Elon Musk apologized to Unsworth and said he did not believe the cave explorer was a pedophile.
The verdict could set a precedent where free speech online, libel and slander are concerned. This was one of the first major defamation lawsuits which was brought by a private individual over a tweet, to ever go to trial.