On November 18, 2019, U.S. District Court Judge for the Central District of California, Stephen V. Wilson, denied billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk’s bid to throw out defamation claims against him made by famed British cave diver Vernon Unsworth, who Musk referred to as “pedo guy” in a July 2018 tweet.In the complaint, filed on September 17, 2018, Unsworth describes how he came to worldwide media attention during the July 2018 rescue of 12 Thai boys trapped in a Thai cave system and eventually became the target of Musk’s tweets. Unsworth is a renowned cave diver who, since May 2012, had specifically been exploring the Thai cave system in which the boys became trapped. Thus, when he heard of the disaster, he knew it was a race against time to save them. On June 24, 2018, Unsworth became the first foreign rescuer to arrive on the scene, Unsworth also notes in the complaint that he was among the last to leave the cave system site after the rescue was complete. Together with the help of three other cave divers, Unsworth put together the dive portion of the rescue plan that ultimately saved the trapped boys. Notably, Unsworth was part of a team of rescuers who transported the boys on stretchers by hand to the exit of the cave.
While the world’s attention was focused on the tragedy unfolding in Thailand, Musk offered to build a mini-submarine, called the “Tube,” which could in theory transport the trapped boys out of the cave system. The Tube was assembled by Musk and his team and was personally delivered to the cave system on July 9, 2018. By this time, eight of the twelve boys had been rescued. On July 13, 2018, Unsworth was asked to speak about the traumatic rescue on CNN. Unsworth was questioned by the interviewer about Musk’s invention and he frankly replied that he believed that the device was a publicity stunt on the part of Musk and that the Tube had “absolutely no chance of working …[Musk] can stick his submarine where it hurts.”
Musk evidentially took umbrage with Unsworth’s assessment of his invention and went on to post a series of tweets about Unsworth, stating that he had never seen Unsworth at the cave system during the rescue and challenging Unsworth to provide video evidence that the water levels were rising in the cave. Musk added that he believed the water levels were low enough that the boys could have swum out of the cave without assistance. Finally, Musk tweeted, “You know what, don’t bother showing the video. We will make one of the mini-sub/pod going all the way to Cave 5 no problemo. Sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it.”
Shareholders from several of Musk’s companies expressed disapproval of his remarks, causing Musk to tweet an apology—notably the apology never disputed the pedophilia allegation. Subsequently the plaintiff, through counsel, wrote Musk an email stating the allegations were false and demanding that Musk set the public record straight. In response, Musk tweeted, “Don’t you think its strange that this guy hasn’t sued me yet?” thus intimating that a lack of legal action was a tacit admission of guilt. Plaintiff’s attorneys responded to the tweet that Musk should “check his mail before tweeting” and attached copy of the plaintiff’s demand letter.
The situation further escalated when BuzzFeed News published an article on the confrontation. Musk responded by directly emailing the author of the article, saying “call people you know in Thailand, find out what’s actually going on and stop defending child rapists.” Musk goes on to allude that Unsworth frequents an area of Thailand supposedly known for child sex trafficking and that Unsworth married a 12-year-old Thai girl. The email and its false allegations were eventually published by BuzzFeed in a September 2019 article.
The case is currently set to begin trial on December 3, 2019.
The Case is: Vernon Unsworth v. Elon Musk, Case No.: 2:18-cv-08048, in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.
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