Elon Musk defamation trial goes to jury after plaintiff’s lawyer calls him ‘billionaire bully’


LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A federal jury in Los Angeles began deliberating on Friday to decide whether Tesla Inc (TSLA.O) boss Elon Musk defamed a British cave explorer whose lawyer said the “billionaire bully” should pay at least $190 million for branding his client a “pedo guy” on Twitter.

FILE PHOTO: Elon Musk walks with his face turned away from cameras as he arrives at court for trial in a defamation case filed by British cave diver Vernon Unsworth who is suing the Tesla Inc chief executive for calling him a “pedo guy” in one of a series of tweets, as the case begins in Los Angeles, California, U.S., December 4, 2019. REUTERS/David McNew

The defense countered that the plaintiff, Richard Unsworth, had failed to show evidence of any harm, and that Musk should not be held liable for what amounted to an off-the-cuff insult that stemmed from an argument and that no one took literally.

Musk, who had taken the witness stand in his own defense during the first two days of the trial but skipped the testimony of others, returned to court on Friday and sat expressionless through the closing arguments of both sides.

As the closely watched trial entered its fourth day, lead plaintiff’s attorney L. Lin Wood summed up his case against Musk by saying the high-tech entrepreneur had “dropped a nuclear bomb” on Unsworth in a series of tweets suggesting he was a pedophile.

Declaring that Musk’s “pedo guy” remark was a slur that would overshadow Unsworth’s relationships and job prospects for years got come, Wood urged jurors to teach the “billionaire bully” a lesson.

At least $150 million of the proposed award would consist of punitive damages, which Wood said “would be a hard slap on the wrist” for Musk, the Tesla chief executive and SpaceX founder who during the trial estimated his own net worth at $20 billion.

Wood’s closing arguments to the three-man, five-woman jury was followed by a summation from Musk’s attorney, Alex Spiro, who said the Twitter messages in question arose from an argument between two men.

“In arguments you insult people,” he said. “There is no bomb. No bomb went off.”

The case is believed to be the first major defamation lawsuit by a private individual to go to trial over tweets.

Musk could appeal if the jury finds him liable or imposes a large damages award.

Unsworth, 64, gained fame when he helped coordinate the successful rescue of a boys’ soccer team and its coach from a flooded Thailand cave in July 2018.

Three days later, Unsworth gave an interview on CNN where he criticized Musk’s offer of a mini-submarine to help with the rescue as a “PR stunt” and said that Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts.”

Two days later, on July 15, 2018, Musk fired off the three tweets underlying the lawsuit, questioning Unsworth’s role in the rescue and calling him “pedo guy,” with no evidence.

Additional reporting by Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, and Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Edwina Gibbs, Grant McCool and Jonathan Oatis

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