The defamation case against Telsa boss Elon Musk is set to take place in a Los Angeles court and is scheduled to last about five days.
In a now-deleted tweet to his 29.8 million followers, Musk called Vern Unsworth a “pedo guy”. At the time he made the tweets (2018), Musk provided no evidence to support his comment and is now being sued for defamation.
Unsworth, who is credited with helping rescue 12 boys trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand in July 2018, is seeking punitive and compensatory damages from the billionaire entrepreneur.
Musk’s online outburst appears to have been provoked by comments made by Unsworth in an interview on CNN. Unsworth was critical of Musk’s decision to send a purpose-built mini-submarine to support the rescue efforts in the Tham Luang cave. Calling the move a “PR stunt”, Unsworth said Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts”.
In a series of tweets following the interview Musk branded Unsworth a paedophile. When questioned about his allegation, he responded saying “bet ya a signed dollar it’s true”.
As a result of Musk’s Twitter outburst, Tesla’s stock price dropped by as much as 4%. However, after he sent an apologetic tweet the price recovered. Musk explained his comments were made “in anger after Mr Unsworth said several untruths and suggested I engage in a sexual act with the mini-sub, which had been built as an act of kindness and according to specifications from the dive team leader”.
Despite his apologetic tweet, he then went on to repeat the claim in an email exchange with Buzzfeed reporter Ryan Mac, writing: “Stop defending child rapists”.
Musk thought the comments were off the record, however, he had made no agreement with Mac about this prior to their email exchange.
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Unsworth is only seeking damages over the tweets but not the email exchange. The Los Angeles District Judge, Stephen Wilson, said that it could be used to show Musk’s state of mind when sending the tweets.
Musk’s legal team insist they will not be seeking an out-of-court settlement as their client had not meant “pedo guy” to suggest Unsworth was a paedophile. In the court filing intended to get the case dismissed, Musk said: “Pedo guy was a common insult used in South Africa when I was growing up.
“It is synonymous with ‘creepy old man’ and is used to insult a person’s appearance and demeanour, not accuse a person of paedophilia.”
Unsworth’s legal team described the explanation as “offensive to the truth” and called his tweets “vile and false”. Jury selection is due to begin on Tuesday at 09:30 local time (17:30 GMT), with Musk to take the stand as the first witnesses.