unanimous verdict by a panel of five women and three men was
returned after roughly 45 minutes of deliberation on the fourth
day of Musk's trial. Legal experts believe it was the first
major defamation lawsuit brought by a private individual over
remarks on Twitter to be decided by a jury.
The outcome was a triumph for Musk, whose mercurial behavior in
a number of instances last year came under close scrutiny from
federal regulators and shareholders of Tesla, his Silicon
Valley-based electric car manufacturer.
The jury's decision signals a higher legal threshold for
challenging potentially libelous Twitter comments, said L. Lin
Wood, the high-profile trial lawyer who led the legal team for
the plaintiff, Vernon Unsworth.
"This verdict puts everyone's reputation at risk," Wood told
reporters after the verdict was announced.
Other lawyers specializing in defamation agreed the verdict
reflects how the freewheeling nature of social media has altered
understandings of what distinguishes libel punishable in court
from casual rhetoric and hyperbole protected as free speech.
Musk, 48, who had testified during the first two days of the
trial in his own defense and returned to court on Friday to hear
closing arguments, exited the courtroom after the verdict and
said: "My faith in humanity is restored."
'TAKE IT ON THE CHIN'
Outside the courthouse, Unsworth, 64, said he was resigned to
his defeat. "I accept the jury's verdict, take it on the chin
and get on with my life."
Wood said his client went "toe to toe with a billionaire bully,"
echoing a phrase from his summation earlier in court, and
indicated to reporters that an appeal was doubtful.
"It's not the verdict we wanted. But it's the end of the road
and we now close this chapter," Wood said.
He said he nevertheless saw the lawsuit as meaningful in helping
erase the stain he said Unsworth's reputation suffered.
During the course of the trial, Musk testified under oath that
his use of the term "pedo guy" - slang for pedophile - was never
meant to be taken literally, and he apologized to Unsworth for
the comment from the witness stand.
The case stems from a public quarrel between Musk and Unsworth,
a British diver who lives part-time in Thailand and gained fame
for his leading role in coordinating the successful rescue of 12
boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in that country
in July 2018.
Unsworth had chided Musk in a CNN interview for delivering a
mini-submarine, which was never used, to the site of the Tham
Luang Nang Non cave system. Unsworth called Musk's intervention
a "P.R." stunt and said the high-tech entrepreneur should "stick
his submarine where it hurts."
Musk responded two days later on Twitter with three posts that
became the basis of the defamation case. The first questioned
Unsworth's role in the rescue, while the second said, "Sorry
pedo guy, you really did ask for it."
The third tweet, in reply to a follower who asked Musk about the
second tweet, said, "Bet ya a signed dollar it's true."
Wood said during his summation that Musk's tweets were akin to a
"nuclear bomb" that would overshadow Unsworth's relationships
and job prospects for years to come and urged jurors to teach
the Tesla chief executive and SpaceX founder a lesson by
awarding Unsworth $190 million, including $150 million in
Two days earlier, under questioning on the witness stand, Musk
had estimated his net worth at $20 billion.
But the jury was apparently swayed by the arguments put forth by
Musk's attorney, Alex Spiro, who said the tweets in question
amounted to an off-hand insult in the midst of an argument,
which no one could be expected to take seriously.
"In arguments you insult people," he said. "No bomb went off."
The defense also said Unsworth failed to demonstrate any harm
from the Twitter comments and even tried to profit from his role
in the rescue, which won him plaudits from the Thai and British
U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson had said the case hinged on
whether a reasonable person would take Musk's Twitter statements
to mean he was actually calling Unsworth a pedophile.
To win, Unsworth needed to show that Musk was negligent in
publishing a falsehood that clearly identified the plaintiff and
caused him harm. "Actual malice" on Musk's part, a high standard
in defamation cases, did not need to be proven since the judge
deemed Unsworth a private individual, not a public figure.
The trial revived discussion of Musk’s erratic behavior in 2018,
when he used Twitter to float a leveraged buyout proposal for
Tesla that was scuttled, ultimately paying $20 million to settle
a Securities and Exchange Commission complaint.
For most of 2019, Musk, who has nearly 30 million Twitter
followers, has largely kept his public comments focused on
Tesla’s new models and improved profitability and on the
technical progress of his aerospace company, SpaceX.
(Additional reporting by Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los
Angeles, and Jonathan Stempel in New York and Tom Hals in
Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Grant McCool and
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