Elon Musk cleared of defamation over 'pedo guy' tweet

Tesla CEO Elon Musk told the jury the tweet shouldn't have been taken literally and was fired off in anger. PHOTO: REUTERS

LOS ANGELES (AFP, BLOOMBERG) - Tesla co-founder Elon Musk was cleared of defamation on Friday (Dec 6) by a jury in Los Angeles over a tweet in which he branded a British caver "pedo guy".

The jury deliberated less than an hour before ruling in favour of Musk and clearing him of any liability in the high-profile case that pitted him against Vernon Unsworth.

Unsworth had sought US$190 million (S$250 million) in damages from the tech billionaire.

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

The four-day civil trial marked the first time that Musk has been called as a witness at trial.

He told the jury the tweet shouldn't have been taken literally and was fired off in anger after Unsworth, in a TV interview, 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 kids, aged 11 to 16, were saved without the use of the sub. 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 - meaning suspect, or suspicious.

Later, he asked why Unsworth hadn't 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 pedophile," Unsworth said in Wednesday testimony. "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 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.

Musk's attorney Alex Spiro told jurors in his closing argument on Friday that the case boils down to "an argument between two people," and argued that Unsworth was trying to profit from the row.

"This was just an insult," Spiro said. "Plaintiff is taking one of those insults and putting it in the spotlight."

The attorney insisted that it was Unsworth who picked a fight and his client had simply pushed back with a tweet he later regretted.

"Elon Musk doesn't like that tweet, shareholders don't like the tweet, Elon Musk's mum doesn't like the tweet," Spiro said while underlining that nowhere was the word pedophile mentioned specifically.

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.

Unsworth was represented by L Lin Wood, an Atlanta attorney best known for representing Richard Jewell, the security guard falsely accused of being connected to the Centennial Olympic Park bombing during the 1996 Summer Olympics.

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