On Friday 6 December 2019, a US District Court jury returned a verdict in favour of Tesla CEO Elon Musk in a $190 million libel case brought by British cave diver, Vernon Unsworth.
The case arose out of a dispute between Mr Musk and Mr Unsworth after the collapse of a Thai cave which trapped a team of football players in June 2018. Mr Unsworth was one of the divers called in to assist whilst Mr Musk offered a set of Tesla engineers and a small submarine.
Mr Unsworth was unimpressed by this offer of assistance, believing it to be a PR stunt. He suggested in a CNN interview that Mr Musk “stick his submarine where it hurts”. Mr Musk responded with a series of tweets, one of which was the infamous tweet referring to Mr Unsworth as “pedo guy”. At the time Mr Musk’s Twitter account had 22m followers, though the tweet was later deleted. The tweet did not mention Mr Unsworth by name.
On 17 September 2018 Mr Unsworth brought libel proceedings [pdf] against Mr Musk in the US District Court for the Central District of California. The full court file is available online. In November 2019, Judge Stephen V. Wilson ruled that Mr Unsworth was not a “limited purpose public figure” (see Unsworth v. Musk, 18-cv-8048, U.S [pdf]).
At the trial Mr Musk stated he did not expect the statement to be taken seriously and that the use of the phrase was common in his home country of South Africa and meant “scary old man”. This was despite the fact that, in emails to a Buzzfeed report, Mr Musk had suggested that Mr Unsworth was a “child rapist”. The Judge instructed the jury not to use the emails to the BuzzFeed reporter to establish defamation but did allow them to be admitted as relevant to Mr Musk’s state of mind when he wrote the tweets.
The jury of three men and five women needed less than an hour to reach a unanimous verdict after a trial on 3 to 6 December 2019.
A juror told BuzzFeed News that the decision boiled down to the idea that a reasonable person could not read the tweet of Mr Musk’s “pedo guy” and determine that he was associated with Mr Unsworth. The juror was quoted as saying
“The judge laid out five points for defamation as soon as we got to point two, which was about being acquainted [with the defamed person], we decided. The people that read Musk’s tweet wouldn’t have known who he was talking about.”
The jury foreman, Joshua James, told the Associated Press that Mr Unsworth ‘s lawyers had not proven their case. “The failure probably happened because they did not focus on the tweets,” Jones said after the verdict. “I think they’ve tried to involve our emotions.”
Mr Musk told reporters leaving the courtroom: “My faith in humanity is restored.” Mr Unsworth said he would not dispute the decision. “I accept the verdict of the jury, I take it on the chin and I continue,” he told reporters in court. It has, however, subsequently been suggested that he may seek a re-trial.
For commentary on the case, see the BBC, The Guardian, Mother Jones, BuzzFeed and Bloomberg.
Suneet Sharma is a junior legal professional with a particular interest and experience in media, information and privacy law.