LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Tesla Inc (TSLA.O) boss Elon Musk went on trial on Tuesday for alleged defamation in appearing to describe a British diver who helped rescue a group of boys from a flooded Thailand cave as a pedophile on Twitter.
Jury selection began in a Los Angeles federal courtroom to decide whether Musk, whose Twitter habits have long been under a microscope, owes Vernon Unsworth punitive and other damages for harming his reputation by calling him “pedo guy.”
Unsworth sued Musk in September 2018, two months after playing a leading role in the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach from the Tham Luang Nang Non cave.
Musk was not in the courtroom as prospective jurors were quizzed for possible bias, including whether they could be fair to billionaires, like Musk, or people who lived in Thailand, like Unsworth.
One man was quickly excused after saying he was interviewing for a job with Tesla, while two women were dismissed after saying they followed Musk’s tweets and could not be impartial.
The trial before U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson is scheduled to last about five days. Musk is expected to testify in his own defense. He has apologized, saying “pedo guy” was a common insult in South Africa where he grew up.
With 29.8 million followers, Musk has made his Twitter account a major source of publicity for his Palo Alto, California-based electric car company, which does not advertise. While the case does not involve Tesla, investors and regulators have expressed concerns about some of Musk’s tweets.
Unsworth’s 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 Unsworth episode began after Musk offered a mini-submarine from his SpaceX rocket company to help with the cave rescue.
Unsworth went on CNN on July 13, 2018, three days after the rescue was completed, belittling the offer as a “PR stunt” and saying 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.”
Unsworth has denied Musk’s accusation.
To win the defamation case, Unsworth needs to show that Musk was negligent, which does not require an intent to defame.
Unsworth 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 pedophile.
The case against 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 pedophile 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.
Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Cynthia Osterman