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Elon Musk Claims In Libel Suit That ‘Pedo Guy’ Tweet Wasn’t To Be Taken Literally

Elon Musk & Vernon Unsworth libel lawsuit

The well-known libel suit by Vernon Unsworth against Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, began this week in Los Angeles at the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. The lawsuit stems from a tweet made by Musk last year, when he referred to Unsworth, a British spelunker, as ‘pedo guy’ following the man’s efforts to help rescue 12 young Thai soccer children from an underground cave. 

On Tuesday, Musk told a California federal jury that he was simply “trading insults” when he posted the tweet, and argued that he couldn’t have defamed Unsworth because the statement was not meant to be taken literally.

On the first day of a defamation trial, Musk took the stand and testified that he became angry when Mr. Unsworth disparaged Musk’s idea “to build a miniature submarine to rescue a Thai children’s soccer team trapped in an underwater cave.”

Unsworth captured instantaneous fame spanning throughout the world for his role in helping rescue the 12 young soccer players and their coach. In an interview with CNN following the rescue, Unsworth called Musk’s submarine rescue effort a “PR stunt,” adding that the billionaire SpaceX leader could “stick his submarine where it hurts.” Musk’s primary argument before the jury this week was that he understood Unsworth’s insult to be a “common idiomatic phrase,” and that he therefore “insulted him back” by using a similar insult in his tweet.

“I didn’t literally mean he was a pedophile, just as he didn’t literally tell me to shove a sub up my ass,” Musk said.

Unsworth sued Musk, a well-known billionaire with companies including SpaceX and Tesla, in September 2018. Unsworth alleged Musk’s series of tweets that referred to him as a “pedo guy,” as acts of defamation, and suggested it was suspicious that he was a “British expat guy who lives in Thailand.” In November, U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson ruled in favor of Unsworth, deciding that he had put forth enough evidence to send the case to a federal jury.

During testimony on Tuesday, Musk said he became involved in the Thai rescue efforts when several people contacted him on Twitter requesting if he could help rescue the children. Musk claims that, at first, he tweeted back that the Thai government and Navy were handling the situation, and that he didn’t think his efforts would be necessary.

However, Musk said he eventually learned that one of the Thai Navy Seals had died while diving in the cave and that an impending monsoon heading towards the area was expected to flood the cave and make rescue nearly impossible. Musk described being overcome with worry that not all of the boys would make it out alive, so he subsequently reached out to one of the British rescue divers.

After engaging in brainstorming sessions, he said the diver asked Musk and his team of engineers to try to make a rigid submersible that could be used to carry the boys out of the underwater cave. Musk said his team worked 24 hours a day to make a mini submarine, eventually bringing it to the cave in Thailand with the intent of utilizing it for rescue efforts.

After Musk viewed Unsworth’s interview on CNN, he stated that he became angry because he and his team genuinely wanted to help the rescue effort. Musk stated, “It was an unprovoked attack on a good-natured attempt to help the kids.”

Musk acknowledged that he did eventually delete the “pedo guy” tweet — although only after Tesla stock prices fell — and issued an apology in a new tweet, saying, “His actions against me do not justify my actions against him, and for that I apologize to Mr. Unsworth and to the companies I represent as a leader. The fault is mine and mine alone.”

Additionally, Musk apologized yet again to Unsworth in court on Tuesday, saying they had traded insults and that it shouldn’t have led to so much trouble.

During opening statements Tuesday, Unsworth’s attorney G. Taylor Wilson of L. Lin Wood PC claimed that anyone who read Musk’s “pedo guy” tweet surely took it as an actual assertion that Unsworth is a pedophile. Additionally, Wilson said that even when Musk apologized for his tweet, he never retracted that assertion.

After Musk learned that Unsworth might sue him, Wilson indicated Musk hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on Unsworth, and to leak any damaging information to the media in the United Kingdom and Australia.

Wilson said Unsworth brought the lawsuit for defamation at “what should have been one of the proudest moments of his life,” following his efforts to help rescue the Thai soccer team. Wilson indicated that Unsworth “feels shame and distress at being called a pedophile.”

Musk’s attorney, Alex Spiro of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP, characterized the dispute as an argument between two men who merely traded insults that were in no way intended to be taken literally. Spiro said Unsworth attacked Musk’s well-meaning efforts to help with the rescue.

Unsworth is represented by L. Lin Wood, Nicole J. Wade, Jonathan D. Grunberg and G. Taylor Wilson of L. Lin Wood PC, Matt C. Wood of Weisbart Springer Hayes LLP, and Robert C. Chatham of Chatham Law Group.

The court proceedings are expected to continue into next week. PINews will provide updates as they are made available.