Elon Musk is known for his eccentric, sometimes controversial use of Twitter. Now, Tesla Inc's chief executive may have to pay for using Twitter to brand someone a paedophile.
Musk is expected on Tuesday to go on trial for allegedly defaming Vernon Unsworth, a British cave explorer who gained international renown for playing a lead role in the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach from the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand in July 2018.
Unsworth says Musk falsely labelled him a "pedo guy" on Twitter and should pay punitive and other damages for harming his reputation. The trial before US District Judge Stephen Wilson in Los Angeles is scheduled to last about five days. Musk is expected to testify in his own defence.
While the case does not involve Tesla, Musk's Twitter habits have long been under a microscope, with investors and regulators expressing concerns about the accuracy of his tweets. With 29.8 million followers, Musk's Twitter account is a major source of publicity for his Palo Alto, California-based electric car company, which does not advertise.
Issues hanging over Musk
The Unsworth case is among the last issues hanging over Musk from a turbulent 2018 and early 2019 when he regularly clashed with Wall Street and short-sellers as Tesla struggled with production problems.
The episode began after Musk offered a mini-submarine from his SpaceX rocket company to help with the cave rescue. Unsworth told CNN on July 13, 2018, three days after the rescue was completed, that the offer was a "PR stunt" and that Musk could "stick his submarine where it hurts."
Two days later, Musk lashed out at Unsworth in a series of tweets, including one which called him a "pedo guy." Musk later apologized for that comment. Unsworth has denied Musk's accusations.
Unsworth must prove the tweets were false
To win the defamation case, Unsworth needs to show that Musk was negligent, which does not require an intent to defame. He must prove the tweets were false, that Musk did not use reasonable care to determine if they were true, and that people reasonably understood them to mean he was a paedophile.
The case against Elon Musk got a boost when Wilson last month said Unsworth's sudden fame from the rescue did not make him a "public figure," meaning he did not need to show that Musk acted with "actual malice" when posting his tweets.
Lawyers for Musk have said the tweets were opinion, not statements of fact, and that Unsworth knew of no one who thought he was a paedophile based on them.
They have also said Unsworth sought to profit from his role in the rescue and provoked Musk's response by suggesting on CNN that Musk did not care about the lives of the trapped boys.