Elon Musk branded a ‘thin-skinned billionaire’ in defamation court documents

10 Oct 2019

Image: © OnInnovation/Flickr

Released court documents linked to the ongoing defamation case taken against Tesla boss Elon Musk have revealed the extent to which the CEO’s Twitter activity has created problems for him.

The fallout from an ill-advised tweet in which Tesla CEO Elon Musk called British diver Vernon Unsworth a “pedo guy” continues.

Unsworth came to public attention in July 2018 when he assisted in the rescue of a boys’ soccer team that was stuck in a Thai cave system. At that time, Tesla CEO Musk offered the Thai government a kid-sized submarine to use to aid the rescue, however, the joint command lead for the operation, Narongsak Osatanakorn, explained that the technology, though “good and sophisticated”, was not practical for the mission.

Unsworth later called Musk’s attempted involvement in the rescue a “PR stunt”, which angered Musk. In an August 2019 deposition, the South African CEO admitted that he became frustrated and launched into a series of tweets outlining his submarine idea while branding Unsworth a “pedo guy”.

He did this, Musk explained, after spending less than an hour searching Unsworth online and finding an article linking Unsworth’s home city of Chiang Rai with the sex trade. The CEO subsequently apologised three days after the initial tweet.

‘Thin-skinned billionaire’

Complications further arose when Musk seemingly doubled-down on his claims in a series of emails to BuzzFeed News, which he believed would not be published due to the fact that he prefaced the email with “off the record”. Musk claimed in emails that Unsworth was a “child rapist” who moved to Chiang Rai “for a child bride who was about 12 years old at the time”.

When BuzzFeed reporter Ryan Mac explained that there had been no mutual agreement that anything would be off the record and that the comments would be published, Musk insulted Mac and said that if he wanted to publish the comments, that was “up to [him]”. The CEO also said that he hoped Unsworth would begin litigation.

Unsworth subsequently did sue, calling Musk a “thin-skinned billionaire” in court documents released on Monday (6 October). As the lawsuit details, Musk later admitted under oath in his deposition that the accusations were false, though he continued to claim that he had evidence of the allegations as the result of an “investigation”.

The investigation was carried out by a private investigator named James Howard Higgins, a man that Unsworth’s lawyers claim was not vetted for reliability, is a “convicted felon” and whom Musk now describes as a “con man … just taking us for a ride”. The lawsuit further alleges that Howard Higgins never told Musk that Unsworth was a “child rapist” and could not provide proof to substantiate the claims.

‘Nothing but a money-grab’

Unsworth’s legal team published an email Musk sent to his PR on 4 September 2018, which said: “I didn’t expect BuzzFeed to publish an off-the-record email. My intent was to have them investigate and come to their own conclusions, not publish my email directly. Still, I’m a fucking idiot.”

Musk’s lawyers have since said in statement that Unsworth’s case “is nothing but a money-grab in which Unsworth has pursued profit and self-promotion at every turn”.

The hearing for a motion on summary judgement is due to take place in the district court of California on 28 October 2019, while the trial date has been set for 3 December 2019.

Elon Musk. Image: OnInnovation/Flickr.

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic