Musk defamation trial may head to jury after billionaire and diver spar in court

British cave diver Vern Unsworth arrives at US District Court in Los Angeles, California December 3, 2019. — AFP pic
British cave diver Vern Unsworth arrives at US District Court in Los Angeles, California December 3, 2019. — AFP pic

LOS ANGELES, Dec 5 — Elon Musk’s defamation trial could be in the hands of jury by the end of today after the billionaire and the diver who is suing him sparred over the meaning and impact of a “pedo guy” tweet at the heart of the case.

British cave explorer Vernon Unsworth testified yesterday he felt “branded a paedophile” despite Musk’s assertion that his “pedo guy” tweet was not meant to be taken literally.

Unsworth’s appearance in a packed federal courtroom in Los Angeles came hours after Musk, the chief executive of electric carmaker Tesla Inc and founder of rocket company SpaceX, concluded two days of testimony seeking to minimise his tweets as offhand comments.

But Unsworth, his voice cracking with emotion, said Musk’s remarks about him on Twitter left him feeling “humiliated, ashamed, dirtied.”

“Effectively, from day one, I was given a life sentence without parole. It hurts to talk about it,” said Unsworth, who is seeking unspecified damages in his lawsuit against Musk.

Neither Unsworth or Musk are expected to testify today. The trial is expected to wrap up today with video testimony from Unsworth’s wife, with whom he is separated, and an Internet expert on the impact of Musk’s tweets.

Unsworth, 64, who said he began caving as a hobby in 1971, splits his time between Britain and Thailand, where he has a Thai girlfriend.

The spat began after Unsworth helped coordinate last year’s rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand. Afterward, Unsworth in a CNN interview mocked Musk’s offer of a mini-submersible as a “P.R. stunt” and said Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts.”

Musk, 48, who had travelled to the rescue site to deliver the mini-sub that was never used, testified he took to Twitter to lash out at Unsworth after seeing the interview.

Musk said the term “pedo guy” was a common epithet in South Africa, where he grew up and insisted in court he did not believe Unsworth was a paedophile.

Musk capped his two-day appearance by acknowledging under questioning that his net worth, mostly from stock holdings in SpaceX and Tesla, was about US$20 billion (RM83.4 billion).

“People think I have a lot of cash. I actually don’t,” he said.

To win his lawsuit, Unsworth needs to show Musk was negligent in publishing a falsehood that clearly identified him and caused him harm.

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 the Palo Alto, California-based Tesla, which does not advertise. — Reuters

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