Elon Musk defamation trial begins over "pedo guy" tweet

/ CBS/AP

Elon Musk is going on trial Tuesday for his troublesome tweets in a defamation case pitting the billionaire against a British diver he allegedly branded a pedophile. Musk will testify early in the case in Los Angeles federal court.

The Tesla CEO will be asked to explain what he meant when he called Vernon Unsworth, who helped rescue youth soccer players trapped underwater in a Thailand cave, "pedo guy" in a Twitter spat more than year ago. Prospective jurors, who will be screened on Tuesday, will be asked questions specific to the Musk case, such as, "Do you have a strong opinion about billionaires?," according to Reuters.

The series of tweets came after Unsworth criticized Musk's offer of a miniature submarine to rescue the youths from the Tham Luang cave as a "PR stunt."

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Musk later apologized for lashing out at Unsworth on Twitter. The tweet, widely interpreted as a reference to a pedophile, was removed by Musk, who disputed that's what he meant. Musk, with almost 30 million followers, uses his Twitter account to broadcast his musings as well as Tesla's company announcements, such as sales for its recently announced Cybertruck.

"'Pedo guy' was a common insult used in South Africa when I was growing up," Musk said in a court declaration. "It is synonymous with 'creepy old man' and is used to insult a person's appearance and demeanor."

Unsworth's lawyers have laughed off that explanation and said his claim was undercut by a subsequent tweet when he said, "Bet ya a signed dollar it's true" in response to a question about whether he had accused Unsworth of being a pedophile.

In a tweet in October, Unsworth's attorney Lin Wood wrote that Musk had "lost every motion to dismiss case after lawsuit filed, beat on the PR table & continue to insult Vernon Unsworth." He added, "Will be very interesting to see how a jury reacts to Elon Musk defense strategy."

When you ask to be sued & law & facts are dead against you & you have lost every motion to dismiss case after lawsuit filed, beat on the PR table & continue to insult Vernon Unsworth. Will be very interesting to see how a jury reacts to Elon Musk defense strategy.

— Lin Wood (@LLinWood) October 30, 2019

The lawyers also said he hired private investigators to dig up evidence Unsworth was a child molester, which they never found, according to Unsworth's lawyers.

Musk's tweets

The lawsuit is not the first time Musk's tweets have landed him in hot water.

Musk and Tesla reached a $40 million settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission last year on allegations he misled investors with a tweet declaring he had secured financing to buy out the electric car maker. He agreed in the settlement to have future tweets about the company screened.

He was forced back into court on accusations he violated that agreement by tweeting a misleading figure about how many cars Tesla would manufacture this year. The SEC sought to hold him in contempt of court, which led to a new agreement imposing tighter controls on Musk's tweets about the company.

Cave drama

The cave drama played out for more than two weeks in the summer of 2018 when the 12 boys — ages 11-16 — and their soccer coach were trapped in a flooded cave in northern Thailand.

Musk and engineers from his SpaceX rocket company custom built a mini-submarine to help with the rescue. The device was heavily publicized but never used.

Unsworth, a diver and caving expert whose advice was considered crucial in the rescue operation, said the sub would never have fit in the cave's tight spaces. He told CNN that Musk could "stick his submarine where it hurts."

Musk responded two days later with his series of tweets.

Musk claims he wasn't making a factual statement and no one reading his tweet would take it seriously and interpret it as defamatory.

Despite removing the tweets, he later suggested in emails to the news website BuzzFeed that Unsworth was a "child rapist" and had moved to northern Thailand to take "a child bride who was about 12 years old at the time." He provided no evidence.

Unsworth is seeking unspecified damages for pain, suffering and emotional distress. The defense has resisted efforts to turn over financial records to show Musk's wealth but has stipulated his net worth exceeds $20 billion.

First published on December 3, 2019 / 9:44 AM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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