LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – High-tech entrepreneur Elon Musk took the witness stand at his defamation trial on Tuesday, testifying that his inflammatory Twitter message at the center of the case was sent in response to an “unprovoked” insult he received from the man now suing him.
Musk, the billionaire chief executive of electric carmaker Tesla Inc (TSLA.O), 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 Musk, who also founded the rocket company SpaceX, falsely labeled him a pedophile on Twitter and should pay punitive and other damages for harming Unsworth’s reputation.
The case stems from an offer Musk made to furnish a mini-submarine from SpaceX to assist in the cave rescue in July 2018.
Unsworth told CNN on July 13, 2018, three days after the rescue was completed, that Musk’s offer was a “PR stunt” and that Musk should “stick his submarine where it hurts.”
Two days later, Musk lashed out at Unsworth in a series of tweets, including one which called the cave diver a “pedo guy.” Musk later apologized for the comment, which Unsworth called a lie.
Musk was called after a jury was selected to hear the case and the two sides delivered opening statements.
Musk said he was merely responding in kind to Unsworth’s remarks. Those comments were “an unprovoked attack on what was a good-natured attempt to help the kids,” Musk testified. “It was wrong and insulting, and so I insulted him back.”
“I thought he (Unsworth) was just some random creepy guy,” 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 Musk’s Twitter statement to mean that he was calling Unsworth a pedophile.
To win the defamation case, Unsworth needs 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 does not need to be proven because the judge has deemed Unsworth a private individual rather than a public figure.
Although the case does not involve Tesla, Musk’s Twitter habits have long been under close scrutiny, with investors and regulators expressing concerns about his tweets.
With 29.8 million followers, Musk’s Twitter account is a major source of publicity for his Palo Alto, California-based electric car company, which does not advertise.
Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Cynthia Osterman