Elon Musk defends 'pedo guy' tweet in defamation trial

04 December 2019 - 08:51 By AFP
Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
Image: AFP Photo

Tesla co-founder Elon Musk said he did not literally call a British caver a paedophile during their infamous spat on Twitter, telling a Los Angeles federal court on Tuesday that he had simply defended himself from unprovoked insults.

The tech billionaire told the defamation trial jury he had been “upset” when he described British diver Vernon Unsworth, who helped rescue young soccer players trapped in a cave in Thailand, as “ guy” in a tweet.

During the July 2018 row, Unsworth described the 48-year-old entrepreneur's proposal to build a mini-submarine to rescue the boys as a “PR stunt”.

“It was an unprovoked attack on a good-natured attempt to rescue the kids,” Musk told the court. “I was upset.”

“It was wrong and insulting, and so I insulted him back,” he said.

Musk was questioned by Unsworth's attorney, Lin Wood, about comments made by the caver, who said the custom-built device would never have fitted in the cave and suggested Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts”.

“It's idiomatic, just as I was not literally meaning he was a paedophile,” replied Musk.

Asked why he failed to specifically say that Unsworth was not a paedophile in his apology, Musk said it seemed obvious to him that this was his intent.

“For me, that did not require any clarification ... (which) would have been worse,” he said.

“I apologised and I say again, 'I apologise Mr Unsworth'," he added.

Musk's testimony is set to continue on Wednesday.

His attorney, Alex Spiro, told the jury of six women and two men that his client meant no harm when he hit out at Unsworth and that his words were spoken in anger.

“The tweets are not allegations of crimes. They are joking, taunting tweets in a fight between two men,” Spiro said.

He also repeated his client's claim that “ guy” was a common insult in SA, where Musk grew up.

“Pedo guy (means) creepy old guy” in South Africa, Spiro said.

Unsworth's attorneys have challenged Musk's defence, presenting as evidence another tweet he wrote in response to a question about whether he thought the British caver was a paedophile.

“Bet ya a signed dollar it's true,” Musk tweeted at the time.

The Tesla and SpaceX CEO also said in court papers that after his spat with Unsworth, one of his aides had hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on the 64-year-old caver.

He also suggested in e-mails to the website BuzzFeed News that Unsworth was a “child rapist”.

Wood dismissed Musk's claims as “disgusting” and an attempt to smear his client's reputation.

He said he looked forward to seeing “how a jury reacts to (Musk's) defence strategy” under oath.

Unsworth, who lives in Britain and Thailand, is expected to give his version of events when he testifies in the trial, set to last until Friday.

He is seeking unspecified damages for pain, suffering and emotional distress.

Musk had sought to have the case dismissed, but a judge rejected the request in October.

The judge also rejected a bid to classify Unsworth as a public figure, which would have made defamation harder to prove.