Vernon Unsworth, the British cave diver who was instrumental in saving the lives of a Thai football team trapped in a cave, has lost his libel action against Elon Musk. Elon Musk had referred to Unsworth as a “pedo guy” on Twitter, and later tweeted: “Bet ya a signed dollar it’s true”.
As it happens, Vernon Unsworth is not a paedophile at all, and it might be thought that his action in defamation was something of a sure-fire winner. Musk’s defence was that when he called Unsworth a pedo, he didn’t literally mean that Unsworth was a pedo.
No, he just meant that Unsworth was a tosser.
Not that he was accusing Unsworth of masturbation either. He was just saying that Unsworth was a moron.
And no, he wasn’t accusing Unsworth of intellectual impairment either.
It turns out that, in the general stock of insults, people don’t generally mean what they say literally. Except perhaps English gentleman insulting Irish playwrights, although when the Marquis of Queensbury called Oscar Wilde a sodomite, his spelling went a little awry and he called Wilde a “somdomite”. Which is something which doesn’t really exist.
Anyway, Elon Musk’s lawyers argued that nobody would imagine that Elon Musk meant his insult literally. An improbable defence on the particular facts, you might think, since Musk also emailed the media accusing Unsworth of being a “child rapist”. That sounds quite, well, specific.
But the trial was in Los Angeles. So you would expect a weird result. And bingo.
Even more bizarrely, however, that was not the basis upon which the defence succeeded. According to one of the jurors, Carl Shusterman, the reason Musk won was that the jury thought that a reasonable person would not know for sure that these insults thrown at Unsworth were really about Unsworth, whoever he was. Not even slightly famous in LA. Mr Shusterman is a Los Angeles attorney. In LA, they let lawyers onto juries. And then let them do TV afterwards. He describes himself as a “Super Lawyer”, and might well want to be famous himself. He owns not just one, but two of Musk’s Tesla cars. Shusterman said:
“The people that read Musk’s tweet wouldn’t have known who he was talking about.”
Which sounds like another way of saying that the jury didn’t think that Mr Unsworth was famous enough to win a libel suit.
But Musk? Bet ya a signed dollar he’s a celebrity.
The whole thing smells. Of Musk. Mr Unsworth is appealing, apparently.