LOS ANGELES — Elon Musk defeated defamation allegations Friday from a British cave explorer who claimed he was branded a pedophile when the Tesla CEO called him “pedo guy” in an angry tweet.
Vernon Unsworth, who participated in the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped for weeks in a Thailand cave last year, had sought $190 million in damages from a man his lawyer called the “billionaire bully.”
It took less than an hour for an eight-person jury in Los Angeles federal court to reject Unsworth’s claim.
Musk said the verdict restored his faith in humanity as he left the court with a security detail.
Musk — who deleted the tweet and later apologized for it — had asserted the expression was nothing more than a flippant insult that meant “creepy old man,” not pedophile.
Unsworth had provoked the attack by belittling Musk’s contribution to the rescue — a miniature sub his engineers built that was never used — as ineffective and nothing more than a “PR stunt.” He further earned the ire of the tech whiz by suggesting Musk stick the sub “where it hurts.”
On Friday, it was Unsworth who felt the pain.
“I accept the jury verdict, take it on the chin, and move on,” Unsworth said outside court.
Jury foreman Joshua Jones said the panel decided Unsworth’s lawyers had failed to prove their case. He said they spent too much time trying to appeal to jurors’ emotions and not concentrating on the evidence.
“The failure probably happened because they didn’t focus on the tweets,” Jones said after the verdict was announced. “I think they tried to get our emotions involved in it.”
Attorney Lin Wood suggested the jury should award $190 million, including $150 million as a “hard slap on the wrist” to punish Tesla CEO for what he said was akin to dropping an atomic weapon on his client that would create problems for years like a radioactive fallout.
Wood said it was important to challenge Musk’s tweet in court even if they didn’t win. Unsworth had said the statement would appear true if he didn’t sue.
“Anybody that knows this man, knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that Elon’s accusations were false,” Wood said outside court. “This was not the justice that he deserved under the evidence.”
Wood said the verdict sends a message that people can get away with making accusations.
“Everyone who hears about this verdict should be very, very concerned about their own reputations,” he said.
Musk’s lawyer told the jury the tweet did not rise to the level of defamation. Attorney Alex Spiro said Unsworth also failed to show actual damages.
Spiro left the courthouse only saying that the jury did the right thing.
Spiro mocked Unsworth’s claims that he had been shamed and humiliated and that the tweet effectively sentenced him to a life sentence without parole, noting that there are many people actually serving such a term.
Spiro noted that Unsworth had been honored by the queen of England and the king of Thailand, had his photo taken next to British Prime Minister Theresa May and been asked to speak at schools and contribute to a children’s book, which showed that no one took Musk’s insult seriously.
“People accused of pedophilia don’t get celebrated by world leaders,” Spiro said. “Kings and queens and prime ministers don’t stand next to pedophiles.”