A defamation case involving Tesla CEO Elon Musk and a British cave diver will go to trial on October 22nd, according to recent court filings. Vernon Unsworth sued Musk for defamation last year after Musk repeatedly accused Unsworth of being a pedophile. A judge rejected Musk’s claim that he wasn’t making a real accusation — in part because of a potentially damning email Musk sent to BuzzFeed. “A reasonable fact-finder could easily conclude that [Elon Musk’s] statements ... implied assertions of objective fact,” wrote district judge Stephen V. Wilson.
Musk and Unsworth got into a brief feud last year following the rescue of a soccer team that was trapped in a cave in Thailand. Unsworth, who helped with the rescue operation, criticized Musk’s dubious plan to save the team with a “kid-sized submarine.” Musk insulted Unsworth by calling him a “pedo guy” on Twitter. He doubled down on the insult by tweeting “bet ya a signed dollar it’s true,” then elaborated even further in emails to BuzzFeed — flatly asserting that Unsworth had moved to Thailand “for a child bride who was about 12 years old at the time.”
Was “pedo guy” a hyperbolic insult or a false accusation?
Defamation law doesn’t apply to opinions or derogatory hyperbole, and Judge Wilson concluded that Musk’s case would be stronger if he’d simply tweeted an insult. But Musk “did not call [Unsworth] a ‘pedo guy’ and leave it there,” writes Wilson. “Rather, he made follow-up statements indicating that he believed his statements to be true.” That included the emails to BuzzFeed, where Musk “purported to convey actual facts and even suggested that the BuzzFeed reporter call people in Thailand to confirm his narrative.”
The decision doesn’t mean Musk is guilty, but it means Unsworth’s case is strong enough to deserve a trial. A pre-trial conference will take place on October 7th. This won’t be the first time Musk has gone to court for some bad tweets. He recently settled a separate lawsuit with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, which accused him of making misleading financial statements on Twitter.