Elon Musk gets no apology from caver who scoffed at ‘pr stunt’
Elon Musk may find out as early as Friday whether he’ll have to pay for a tweet fired off in anger disparaging a British cave expert following the rescue of soccer players in a Thai cave.
A jury of three men and five women in Los Angeles federal court has heard all the evidence in Vernon Unsworth’s defamation lawsuit over the tweet, in which Musk called the caver a “pedo guy.”
After being instructed on the law by Judge Stephen Wilson Friday, and hearing final arguments from lawyers for Unsworth and Musk, the jury will begin deliberations. The jury will have to decide whether the tweet harmed Unsworth’s reputation and caused him emotional distress. To get punitive damages, the jury must be convinced that Musk acted with malice.
Musk didn’t call any witness in the case. He testified for about six hours over two days as a witness called by Unsworth’s lawyers.
He told the jury his net worth is about $20 billion, but that contrary to public opinion, he doesn’t have a lot of cash.
Unsworth sued Musk over the July 2018 tweet, which the chief executive officer of Tesla Inc. and SpaceX told the jury was “a flippant, off-the-cuff insult.” Tesla shares rose as much as 2.1% on Friday and have been relatively stable this week.
Musk fired off the tweet after Unsworth called his effort to use a mini submarine to rescue the soccer players a PR stunt. He apologized for it on Twitter, and again during the trial, which began Tuesday.
But Unsworth refused to reciprocate.
“I’m not sure how I need to apologize,” the caver told the jury Thursday. “My opinion, as I sit here today, is it was a PR stunt.”
Musk and engineers at his companies prepared the mini submarine to help with the rescue efforts, which drew international attention. The 12 soccer players, aged 11 to 16, and their coach were saved without the sub.
Unsworth, who knew the caves well, ridiculed the high-profile effort. Unsworth told CNN that Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts.”
Unsworth testified Thursday that he didn’t realize CNN was a major international network.
“I don’t watch much television,” he said.
Musk’s Twitter response to the television interview included the line, “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.
In an attempt to persuade the jury that the comment was harmful – and that Musk should compensate him for it – Unsworth, a financial consultant who divides his time between England and Thailand, described the effect it had on him.
“When you combine sus’ and pedo guy,’ I took it as I was being branded a pedophile,” Unsworth told the jury Wednesday. “I feel vulnerable and sometimes, when I’m in the U.K., 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.
But under cross-examination Thursday, Musk’s lawyers tried to show that Unsworth wasn’t harmed by the comment, displaying for the jury a picture of the caver with then U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May in front of 10 Downing Street – the prime minister’s residence.
They also noted he was honored in Thailand, suggesting that if anyone had taken the pedophile comment seriously, he wouldn’t have been embraced as a hero for his efforts in assisting in the rescue.
Unsworth was confronted under cross-examination with several instances when he had complained to friends that others involved in the rescue were being offered book and movie deals, and that he was left out of the loop and wasn’t offered enough money for his story.
“What I don’t like about all this is that everyone is trying to do deals that won’t work,” Unsworth wrote to a friend in an email shown to the jury. “I am the KEY. I am the BIG piece in the jigsaw.”
He also admitted that he declined an interview with the Guardian newspaper for a year-end story about the cave rescue because the publication wouldn’t pay and give him editorial control.
The case is Unsworth v. Musk, 18-cv-08048, U.S. District Court, Central District of California (Los Angeles).