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By Tim Higgins
A Los Angeles jury ruled in favor of Elon Musk, deciding Friday that the Tesla Inc. chief executive's use of Twitter last year to suggest a British spelunker was a pedophile didn't amount to defamation.
"The jury got it right," Mr. Musk's lawyer, Alex Spiro, said in a statement after the ruling.
The legal battle stems from Mr. Musk's involvement in a high-profile effort to rescue a youth soccer team trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand last year. British cave explorer Vernon Unsworth, who helped in the early days of the operation, criticized Mr. Musk's effort to use a mini-sub to save the boys as a public-relations stunt. The device was never used, and Mr. Unsworth told CNN that Mr. Musk could "stick his submarine where it hurts."
Mr. Musk responded with a tweet on July 15, 2018, to his then more than 22 million followers with a defense that concluded: "Sorry pedo guy. You really did ask for it." Responding to a Twitter user noting that he was calling Mr. Unsworth a pedo, Mr. Musk wrote: "Bet ya signed dollar it's true."
Mr. Musk, who later deleted the tweets and apologized, months later returned to the topic. He posted a tweet that seemed to poke further at Mr. Unsworth, reading in part, "You don't think it's strange he hasn't sued me?" Two days later, he wrote an email to a BuzzFeed News reporter, his comments subsequently published, that doubled down on his Twitter statements.
"We went into Goliath's backyard to sue him because he made the challenge `if you do not sue, it is true,'" Mr. Unsworth's lawyer L. Lin Wood said in an email Friday. "As far as the verdict -- hell, Goliath wins almost every time. We all knew that."
Mr. Musk responded on Twitter, referring to Mr. Unsworth as "pedo guy." He later deleted his tweets and apologized, only to reignite the matter later with additional tweets.
The case attracted legal titans on both sides. Mr. Spiro, whose clients have included billionaire Robert Kraft and rapper Jay-Z, painted the exchange in the context of joking taunts during a conflict between men. Mr. Musk made rare court appearances, testifying he didn't mean to convey that Mr. Unsworth was an actual pedophile, but rather "a creep."
Mr. Unsworth's legal team included Mr. Wood, who represented Richard Jewell after he was falsely blamed for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing.
Mr. Unsworth's team sought to cast Mr. Musk as a high-profile billionaire using his power to tarnish Mr. Unsworth's reputation. Mr. Unsworth took the stand to describe the emotional toll the matter had taken on him.
The trial also played out on Twitter, as reporters tweeted the latest updates between breaks. Camera crews staked out the U.S. District Court in hopes of capturing an image of Mr. Musk.
The war of words with Mr. Unsworth unfolded at a difficult time for Tesla and Mr. Musk. The company was in the middle of a big push to boost deliveries of its mass-market Model 3 electric car after months of delays.
Mr. Musk's use of Twitter has helped Tesla generate publicity for its electric vehicles, while also entangling him in legal messes.
The Securities and Exchange Commission accused him of misleading investors with a tweet last year that claimed he had lined up funding to take Tesla private. He settled with the SEC, and as part of that deal, agreed to have his tweets preapproved by Tesla when dealing with the company's material business.
Mr. Musk was in a New York City court earlier this year before a judge after the SEC claimed he violated the terms of the settlement with tweets about production figures. The two sides resolved the matter with a more detailed agreement on what pronouncements he needs to have preapproved before tweeting.
Write to Tim Higgins at Tim.Higgins@WSJ.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
December 06, 2019 21:10 ET (02:10 GMT)
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