Skip to main content

In this March 14, 2019, file photo, Tesla CEO Elon Musk speaks at Tesla's design studio in Hawthorne, Calif.

Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press

High-tech entrepreneur Elon Musk took the witness stand at his defamation trial on Tuesday, testifying that his inflammatory Twitter message at the centre of the case was sent in response to an “unprovoked” insult he received from the man now suing him.

Mr. Musk, the billionaire chief executive of electric car maker Tesla Inc., was the first witness to testify in the lawsuit brought by a British cave diver who gained fame for his leading role in the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand last year.

The diver, Vernon Unsworth, says Mr. Musk, who also founded the rocket company SpaceX, falsely labelled him a pedophile on Twitter and should pay punitive and other damages for harming Mr. Unsworth’s reputation.

Story continues below advertisement

The case stems from an offer Mr. Musk made to furnish a mini-submarine from SpaceX to assist in the cave rescue in July, 2018.

Mr. Unsworth told CNN on July 13, 2018, three days after the rescue was completed, that Mr. Musk’s offer was a “PR stunt” and that Mr. Musk should “stick his submarine where it hurts.”

Two days later, Mr. Musk lashed out at Mr. Unsworth in a series of tweets, including one which called the cave diver a “pedo guy.” Mr. Musk later apologized for the comment, which Mr. Unsworth called a lie.

Mr. Musk was called after a jury was selected to hear the case and the two sides delivered opening statements.

Mr. Musk said he was merely responding in kind to Mr. Unsworth’s remarks. Those comments were “an unprovoked attack on what was a good-natured attempt to help the kids,” Mr. Musk testified. “It was wrong and insulting, and so I insulted him back.”

“I thought he [Mr. Unsworth] was just some random creepy guy,” Mr. Musk added. “I thought at the time that he was unrelated to the rescue.”

The judge explained the case hinges on whether a reasonable person would take Mr. Musk’s Twitter statement to mean that he was calling Mr. Unsworth a pedophile.

Story continues below advertisement

To win the defamation case, Mr. Unsworth needs to show that Mr. Musk was negligent in publishing a falsehood that clearly identified the plaintiff and caused him harm. “Actual malice” on Mr. Musk’s part does not need to be proven because the judge has deemed Mr. Unsworth a private individual rather than a public figure.

Although the case does not involve Tesla, Mr. Musk’s Twitter habits have long been under close scrutiny, with investors and regulators expressing concerns about his tweets.

With 29.8 million followers, Mr. Musk’s Twitter account is a major source of publicity for his Palo Alto, California-based electric car company, which does not advertise.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Related topics

Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter
To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies