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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Tesla Twitter Critic Sues Elon Musk for Defamation

The man behind a Twitter account which fact-checked Tesla’s manufacturing and vehicle automation claims sued CEO Elon Musk this week, claiming the entrepreneur’s accusation he almost killed Tesla employees is defamatory.

(CN) — The man behind a Twitter account that fact-checked Tesla’s manufacturing and vehicle-automation claims sued CEO Elon Musk this week, claiming the entrepreneur’s accusation he almost killed Tesla employees is defamatory.

Randeep Hothi, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, sued Musk in Alameda County Superior Court on Tuesday. Due to court backlogs, the complaint was not made public until Friday, according to Hothi’s attorney D. Gill Sperlein.

Hothi is the creator of the @skabooshka Twitter account where he fact-checked Musk and Telsa’s published claims regarding the electric vehicle manufacturer’s automation, technology and production processes.

Sperlein told Courthouse News that Hothi started the fact-checking social media account “as a social experiment through crowd-sourcing information related to his social science doctorate work.”

Hothi fact-checked Tesla’s production rate claims regarding its Model 3 vehicles which were advertised as hyper-automated and could largely function without human input — a process Musk called “alien dreadnought,” according to the 9-page complaint. Hothi was skeptical Tesla could meet the production goals publicly touted by Musk.

Beginning in 2018, Hothi observed Tesla’s production at its Fremont, California, factory, determining production fell below the rate promised Musk. He also documented construction of Tesla’s Model 3 assembly line tent, sharing phots with his Twitter followers.

Tesla apparently investigated Hothi, recording his license plate number. When Hothi entered the Fremont sales center in February 2019, Tesla’s security system flagged his license plate and he was confronted by a security guard.

But an incident on April 16, 2019, is what apparently prompted Tesla to file a workplace harassment restraining order against Hothi. Hothi was driving when he saw a Tesla-owned vehicle with roof-mounted cameras on the road. The vehicle was recording audio, video and data, he says.

“Hothi followed the vehicle, observed it, photographed it and posted the photographs at Twitter. At no point did Hothi either drive recklessly or endanger the safety of the occupants of the Tesla vehicle,” he claims in the defamation case against Musk.

A few days later, on April 19, 2019, Tesla filed a civil restraining order against Hothi claiming he trespassed, stalked, harassed and endangered Tesla employees and he hit a Tesla security guard with his vehicle and swerved his car toward the Tesla-owned Model 3 vehicle he encountered on the road.

The harassment case against Hothi was dropped by Tesla after the judge assigned to the case ordered the car manufacturer to produce video evidence documenting Hothi’s reckless driving.

But Musk apparently had not let the dispute go.

When exchanging emails last year with Aaron Greenspan, the owner of the litigation publishing website PlainSite.org, regarding Tesla’s history of taking action against whistleblowers, Musk doubled-down on his accusations against Hothi.

“Musk wrote ‘as for the people you mention below, they have actively harassed, and in the case of Hothi, almost killed Tesla employees. What was a sideswipe when Hothi hit one of our people could easily have been a death with 6 inches of difference,” Hothi says in his complaint, quoting Musk’s email.

Hothi claims Musk’s statements, which made no references to the harassment petition, exceed the scope of litigation privilege “and was not a fair report made to a public journal.”

“As one of the highest-profile and wealthiest individuals in the world, Musk knew or should have known his accusations concerning Hothi would be conveyed to a worldwide audience and would result in the accusations receiving significant publicity,” Hothi claims.

The email exchange was published by Greenspan on Twitter, where it received over 400,000 “impressions” or views by Twitter users, according to the complaint.

Attorney Sperlein told Courthouse News that Musk’s accusations against Hothi resulted in “a lot of hate mail.”

“Some people contacted his thesis adviser at the University of Michigan saying he was attempting to murder people,” Sperlein said.

Others engaged in “troubling, racist chatter,” Sperlein said, accusing Hothi, who is Sikh and wears a turban, of being a terrorist.

An email to Tesla seeking comment was not returned as of press time.

Hothi seeks general, special and punitive damages.

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