LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – High-tech entrepreneur Elon Musk testified at his defamation trial on Tuesday that his “pedo guy” Twitter message at the center of the case was not meant to be taken literally and was sent in response to an “unprovoked” insult he received from the man now suing him.
Musk, the billionaire chief executive of electric carmaker Tesla Inc, was the first witness called to the stand in the lawsuit brought against him by a British cave diver who gained fame for his lead role in the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand last year.
The diver, Vernon Unsworth, says Musk, also founder of the rocket company SpaceX, falsely labeled him a pedophile on Twitter and should pay punitive and other damages.
The case stems from an offer Musk made to furnish a mini-submarine from SpaceX to assist in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave rescue in July 2018.
Unsworth told CNN on July 13, 2018, three days after the rescue was successfully completed, that Musk’s offer was a “PR stunt” and that Musk should “stick his submarine where it hurts.”
Two days later, Musk lashed out at Unsworth in a series of tweets, including one which called the cave diver a “pedo guy.” Musk later apologized for the comment, saying the term was a common insult in South Africa where he grew up.
Unsworth called the slur a lie that has harmed his reputation.
Musk was called to testify by plaintiff’s lawyers after a jury was selected to hear the case and the two sides delivered opening statements.
Musk said he was merely responding in kind to Unsworth’s remarks, a video of which Musk said he watched on Twitter. Those comments were “an unprovoked attack on what was a good-natured attempt to help the kids,” Musk testified. “It was wrong and insulting, and so I insulted him back.”
“I thought he (Unsworth) was just some random creepy guy,” Musk added. “I thought at the time that he was unrelated to the rescue.”
Pressed under questioning by lawyer Lin Wood, Musk testified that he did not mean for his tweet about Unsworth to be taken literally.
“I assume he did not mean to sodomize me with a submarine … Just as I didn’t literally mean he was a pedophile,” he said.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson has explained the case hinges on whether a reasonable person would take Musk’s Twitter statement to mean that he was calling Unsworth a pedophile.
To win the defamation case, Unsworth needs to show that Musk was negligent in publishing a falsehood that clearly identified the plaintiff and caused him harm. “Actual malice” on Musk’s part does not need to be proven because the judge has deemed Unsworth a private individual rather than a public figure.
MUSK’S TWITTER FOLLOWERS
Although the case does not involve Tesla, Musk’s Twitter habits have long been under close scrutiny, with investors and regulators expressing concerns about his tweets.
With 29.8 million followers, Musk’s Twitter account is a major source of publicity for his Palo Alto, California-based electric car company, which does not advertise.
Wood, representing Unsworth, tried to establish that Musk knew he had a high degree of influence with his Twitter followers and the public, and that the veracity of what he said thus carried significant weight.
“People say a lot of things on Twitter that aren’t true,” Musk said.
In an opening statement earlier in the day, lawyer Taylor Wilson, another member of Unsworth’s legal team, said the tweet in question was more than a slip-up, and Musk had no business branding Unsworth a predator “in what should have been one of the proudest moments of his life.”
Musk lawyer Alex Spiro countered that Unsworth did not act after the tweet like a man who suffered because of it.
“The plaintiff is saying he has been horribly damaged, and deserves money,” Spiro said. “He doesn’t.”
Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Cynthia Osterman