Elon Musk is going on trial for his troublesome tweets in a defamation lawsuit pitting the billionaire against a British diver he is accused of branding a pedophile.
The Tesla Inc. and SpaceX chief is expected to testify early in the case 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 last year.
It’s unclear when he will take the stand, and his attorney said a judge told Musk to be in federal court in Los Angeles on Tuesday. Jury selection took only hours; people were asked questions including whether they had a strong opinion on Musk and whether they drive a Tesla.
Musk has apologized for lashing out at Unsworth on Twitter after the diver belittled the billionaire’s efforts to build a tiny submarine to save the trapped boys, calling it a “PR stunt.” Musk removed his tweet, widely interpreted as a reference to a pedophile, and disputed that’s what he meant.
“‘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 laughed off that explanation, saying that when Musk received a question about whether he had accused Unsworth of being a pedophile, he replied by tweeting: “Bet ya a signed dollar it’s true.”
The diver’s lawyers also said Musk hired private investigators to dig up evidence that Unsworth was a child molester, which they did not find.
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 over allegations that the chief executive misled investors with a tweet declaring he had secured financing to take the electric car maker private. He agreed in the settlement to have future tweets about the company screened.
He went back to 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.
The cave drama played out for more than two weeks in summer 2018 when the 12 boys and their soccer coach were trapped in a flooded cave in northern Thailand.
Musk and SpaceX engineers 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 not have fit in the cave. He told CNN that Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts.”
Musk responded two days later with his series of tweets.
Musk claims that he wasn’t making a factual statement and that 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.