Elon Musk has appeared in court to testify in a defamation lawsuit brought by a British cave diver who he called a “pedo guy” on Twitter.
Giving evidence in Los Angeles, the Tesla founder insisted his slur was not meant to be taken literally and was only a “taunt” aimed at Vernon Unsworth during a war of words over his offer to help rescue a schoolboy football team from a flooded cave in Thailand.
Mr Unsworth has accused the billionaire inventor of falsely labelling him a paedophile and is seeking unspecified damages.
The case stems from Musk offering a “kid-sized” submarine to rescuers working to free 12 Thai schoolboys and their coach from the waterlogged Tham Luang Nang Non cave complex in Chiang Rai province in July 2018.
Rescuers – including Mr Unsworth – led the football team to safety without using the 6ft vessel, which the British diver later said “had absolutely no chance of working”.
“He can stick his submarine where it hurts,” he told CNN during an interview, dismissing Musk’s offer to help as a “PR stunt”.
Two days later, the tech entrepreneur lashed out at Mr Unsworth in a series of tweets, calling him “sus[picious]” and a “pedo guy”.
Testifying to a packed courtroom on Tuesday, Musk conceded his tweets were “not classy” but said they were written in response to “an unprovoked attack on what was a good-natured attempt to help the kids”.
“It was wrong and insulting, and so I insulted him back,” the SpaceX founder told jurors.
Under questioning from Mr Unsworth’s lawyer, Lin Wood, Musk insisted his slur did not amount to a genuine accusation of paedophilia.
“I assume he did not mean to physically sodomise me with a submarine … just as I didn’t literally mean he was a paedophile,” he said.
“I apologised in a tweet and again in the deposition, and I’ll say it again – I apologise to Mr Unsworth,” added Musk, looking directly at the diver, who sat stone-faced throughout the testimony.
Musk has claimed "pedo guy" is a common insult in his native South Africa and was taken to mean "creepy old man" – a defence he first offered in September.
Asked why he had not made it clear earlier that he was not calling Mr Unsworth a paedophile, he told the court: "I think that would be worse. It would seem disingenuous as an apology."
If he had called someone a "motherf**ker it would seem "sarcastic" to say "I did not mean they committed incest," he suggested.
But Taylor Wilson, another member of Mr Unsworth’s legal team, said Musk's tweet was more than a slip-up and had falsely branded the dive a predator to millions of people “in what should have been one of the proudest moments of his life”.
Musk is expected to return to the witness stand on Wednesday for more questioning by his own lawyer, Alex Spiro, who told the court Mr Unsworth deserved no compensation for “joking, taunting tweets in a fight between men”.
The shame inflicted on the diver by Musk’s slur had been mitigated by attention he received following the rescue, Mr Spiro claimed, as well as honours from the Thai king and British prime minister.
US district judge Stephen Wilson has explained the case hinges on whether a reasonable person would take Musk’s tweets to mean that he was calling Mr Unsworth a paedophile.
While Musk deleted the offending July 2018 tweet and later apologised, he also doubled down on the accusation during an exchange with a Buzzfeed reporter seeking a comment on the threat of legal action.
“Stop defending child rapists,” he wrote in an August 2018 email to the journalist.
Musk also hired a man – later exposed as a fraudster – claiming to be a private investigator to look for dirt on Mr Unsworth when it became clear he was being sued.
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