LOS ANGELES (CN) – A federal jury deliberated less than an hour before siding with billionaire Elon Musk on Friday, finding the tech wizard did not defame a British cave expert when he called him “pedo guy” in a tweet.
Outside the courtroom after the verdict was read Musk was heard saying, “My faith in humanity is restored.”
Before that, however, jurors heard from Vernon Unsworth’s attorney in closing arguments that Musk is a “billionaire bully” and a liar who should pay $190 million in damages as punishment for a tweet last year in which he called Unsworth “pedo guy.” Musk’s attorney Alex Spiro told jurors “Mr. Unsworth started it.”
The case of Musk’s tweet began during efforts to rescue 12 boys trapped in a cave in Thailand in 2018. When asked in a CNN interview about Musk’s offer to send a mini-sub his SpaceX engineers had developed for the rescue, Unsworth called it a PR stunt and that Musk should take the sub and “stick it where it hurts.”
Musk said he was invited by one of the lead divers.
An eight-person jury in Los Angeles federal court listened to three days of testimony on the rescue operation, Musk’s involvement and how Unsworth was familiar with that particular cave complex because he lived in the area.
Musk apologized three times, but Unsworth’s attorney Lin Wood said during his closing argument that he should have known any type of tweet sent by Musk wasn’t just going to go away after it was deleted. Wood said the most influential billionaire in the world set off a “nuclear bomb” in Unsworth’s world.
At one point, Musk flinched and silently exclaimed in court while listening to Wood’s description of the bomb comparison.
“The letter N also stands for never, never had the courage to admit to the world it was false,” said Wood of Musk’s “pedo guy” tweet.
Musk’s defense argued that no reasonable person would be able to connect the term “pedo guy” to pedophile. But Wood showed the jury a tweet in which a Twitter user said Musk calling a British cave expert a “pedo” was real classy.
Musk wrote back, “I bet you a signed dollar it’s true.”
During his testimony earlier in the week, Musk called that a “low-risk wager.”
Unsworth said he’s owed $5 million in actual damages, $35 million in assumed damages and – in order to teach Musk a lesson – $150 million in punitive damages.
“We just want to discourage by really getting his attention,” said Wood. “I believe what he needs is a hard slap on the wrist.”
During the trial, Musk testified his net worth is approximately $20 billion with the combined value of stock in Tesla and SpaceX.
His defense said there was a lack of evidence on how much Unsworth suffered because of the tweet.
While Musk had 22.5 million Twitter followers at the time, Unsworth still managed to attend events surrounding the successful rescue operation and tried to broker a movie deal while also receiving prestigious awards on the world stage.
The cave in Thailand and the testimony from cave diver and rescue leader Rick Stanton in which he spoke highly of Unsworth are not part of the issue between Musk and Unsworth.
“You can’t start policing speech,” said Spiro. “We’re having a federal case about the wrong insult?” Spiro asked incredulously, adding there was no evidence of actual defamation, grief or suffering.
On rebuttal Wood asked whether Unsworth was supposed to hide in his house as a proper response to the tweet. In fact, Wood said, the emotional turmoil impacted Unsworth’s life but he did not share it with many people.
“The fallout can’t be seen, touched or photographed,” said Wood.
The jury of five women and three men returned their verdict approximately 50 minutes after receiving instructions Friday afternoon.
After the verdict, Unsworth and his attorneys told reporters that failing to hold people liable for making false statements could set a dangerous precedent.
Wood said statements like what Musk said are “tearing at the fabric of society and how we speak to each other.”
He added: “This man came over here and sued Elon Musk. It is not very often that David beats Goliath, but he had the courage to fight a battle where going in where the odds were stacked against him.”
Unsworth said, “I’d just like to say I respect the jury’s decision and I’d just like to say that my legal team have been absolutely awesome. I’ve come here for a verdict; unfortunately, it’s not gone the way as I expected.”
Unsworth or his attorneys did not indicate if they will appeal the jury’s decision.