LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Elon Musk wrapped up two days of testimony at his defamation trial on Wednesday, pressing a defense that his “pedo guy” Twitter message at the heart of the case was an “off-the-cuff” insult hurriedly written in anger and not meant to be taken seriously.
The chief executive of electric carmaker Tesla Inc and founder of rocket company SpaceX concluded his appearance in a packed Los Angeles federal courtroom by acknowledging under questioning that his net worth, mostly from stock holdings in those two companies, is about $20 billion.
“People think I have a lot of cash. I actually don’t,” he said. “I have stock in SpaceX and Tesla, and debt against that.”
Musk, 48, the first witness to testify at his trial, also apologized again from the stand to the plaintiff, Vernon Unsworth, the British cave explorer and diver who is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages in the case.
After helping to coordinate a successful rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand in July 2018, Unsworth in a CNN interview mocked Musk’s offer a mini-submersible as a public relations stunt, and said Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts.”
Musk, who had traveled to the rescue site with a team of engineers to deliver the mini-sub, which was never used, testified he took to Twitter two days later to lash out at Unsworth because he found Unsworth’s comments about him to be “extremely rude and contemptuous.”
“This was very much an off-the-cuff response,” Musk said.
Asked whether he was accusing Unsworth of the crime of pedophilia by referring to him as “pedo guy” in a series of tweets, Musk said, “absolutely not.”
“It’s an insult, like saying mother-effer doesn’t actually mean someone having sex with their mother,” he said, using a sanitized version of a more vulgar expression.
Musk insisted on Tuesday that he had not even realized at the time that Unsworth was part of the rescue.
Musk’s “pedo guy” tweet is one of three that Unsworth branded as defamatory falsehoods harming his reputation. In one of the others, Musk wrote: “Bet ya a signed dollar it’s true,” in response to a Twitter follower asking whether he was really suggesting that Unsworth was a pedophile.
On the witness stand on Wednesday, Musk downplayed that tweet, saying: “It’s obviously a low-stakes wager.”
PHONY PRIVATE EYE
Maintaining a composed, calm demeanor throughout, Musk stood by the thrust of his defense – that his tweets were off-handed, figurative retorts to a put-down from someone he did not know at the time. And he repeatedly expressed regret for them.
But testimony from Musk and his private officer manager, Jared Birchall, who followed his boss to the witness stand, showed that the South African-born entrepreneur sought to discredit Unsworth once Musk realized a lawsuit was coming.
Musk acknowledged under oath on Tuesday that he had been duped out of $52,000 by a man named James Howard, posing as a private detective and offering to dig up dirt about Unsworth.
Howard ultimately proved to be a con artist, and nothing he gathered from his supposed investigation could be corroborated or acted on, leading to his dismissal, Musk testified.
Before then, however, Musk had been ready to expose unsavory but truthful information he believed Howard may have uncovered about Unsworth, according to Birchall’s testimony and email messages entered as evidence.
Birchall acknowledged sending Howard an email in late August 2018 saying he and Musk “would like to move forward with leaking” information to the British press, if they were convinced that Howard’s material was factual.
Another email to Howard said Musk was not looking to “frame” anyone.
“This exercise was always about finding the truth and nothing more,” Birchall testified, adding he was unaware of any media reports stemming from bogus material collected by Howard.
Birchall also testified that Howard had focused his purported inquiry on Unsworth’s links to Thailand, a country infamous for its illegal sex trade. Thailand also is a frequent travel destination for Unsworth, who has a steady girlfriend there, as he has stipulated in court documents.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson has said Unsworth’s defamation case hinges on whether a reasonable person would take Musk’s tweets 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 him and caused him harm. “Actual malice” by Musk does not need to be proven because the judge deemed Unsworth a private individual, not a public figure.
Although the case does not involve Tesla, Musk’s Twitter habits have long been under close scrutiny, with the company’s investors and regulators expressing concerns about his tweets.
With 29.9 million followers, Musk’s social media account is a major source of publicity for the Palo Alto, California-based Tesla, which does not advertise.
Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Sonya Hepinstall and Cynthia Osterman