LOS ANGELES (REUTERS) – Tesla chief executive Elon Musk returned to court on Wednesday (Dec 4) to resume testifying at a hearing to decide whether he defamed a British diver whom the Silicon Valley billionaire called “pedo guy” on Twitter.
Flanked by half a dozen men, the 48-year-old South African-born entrepreneur did not answer questions from reporters as he entered the federal court in Los Angeles for his second day of testimony.
On Tuesday, Musk apologised for the “pedo guy” tweet, saying he was responding to an “unprovoked” insult by the diver, Vernon Unsworth, now suing him for defamation.
Unsworth had led a successful rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand in July 2018 when in a CNN interview he mocked Musk’s offer of a mini-submersible as a public relations stunt, and said the Tesla founder could “stick his submarine where it hurts.”
“I assume he did not mean to sodomise me with a submarine,” Musk testified on Tuesday under questioning from Unsworth’s lawyer, Lin Wood.
“Just as I didn’t literally mean he was a paedophile.”
Unsworth is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages from Musk, who also founded rocket company SpaceX, saying the false claim that he was a paedophile harmed his reputation.
Musk was called to testify on Tuesday by Unsworth’s lawyers, after an eight-person jury was selected and lawyers for both sides delivered their opening statements.
US District Judge Stephen Wilson has said the case hinges on whether a reasonable person would take Musk’s tweets to mean that he was calling Unsworth a paedophile.
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” by Musk does not need to be proven because the judge deemed Unsworth a private individual, not a public figure.
Although the case does not involve Tesla, Musk’s Twitter habits have long been under close scrutiny, with the company’s investors and regulators expressing concerns about his tweets.
With 29.9 million followers, Musk’s social media account is a major source of publicity for his Palo Alto, California-based electric car company, which does not advertise.
In his opening statement, Taylor Wilson, another lawyer for Unsworth, said the tweet was more than a slip-up, and Musk had wrongly branded Unsworth a predator “in what should have been one of the proudest moments of his life.”
Musk’s 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.”