SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s lawyer argued Tuesday in a court filing that the British cave diver who became embroiled in a public spat with his client and later sued for defamation can’t recover damages because his reputation was not harmed.
In court documents filed Tuesday, Musk’s new lawyer Alex Spiro of Quinn Emanuel questioned the motive of Vernon Unsworth, the British cave diver, who filed a defamation lawsuit in September 2018 in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. The suit was filed after Musk called him a “pedo guy” and made other statements insinuating he was a pedophile in a public attack on Twitter. The fight erupted last summer after the rescue of youth soccer players trapped in a cave in Thailand.
Musk denies the allegations of defamation in the latest response. Spiro became Musk’s lawyer earlier this month.
“One has to question Mr. Unsworth’s motive in turning this into a federal case,” Spiro wrote in a response to Unsworth’s complaint. “The libel laws exist to protect those whose reputations have been harmed by false assertions of fact. In the case of Mr. Unsworth, who made himself a public figure, those assertions have to be made with constitutional malice. Mr. Musk has already retracted what he said publicly. Mr. Unsworth’s claim is thus confined to what Mr. Musk said in private conversation. Regardless, Mr. Unsworth and his reputation are no worse off.”
Musk’s lawyer argues that Unsworth was motivated by a “desire to milk the media coverage over what he instigated to reap a financial windfall from Mr. Musk, despite the absence of any injury.” Musk will fight that, Spiro wrote.
U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson recently denied a motion to dismiss the case and instead scheduled a date for trial. The trial is scheduled to begin October 22. The decision means that Unsworth’s case is strong enough to go to trial.
Musk’s lawyers argued that statements on the internet, and more specifically on unmoderated forums like Twitter, are presumptively opinion, not objective fact. Defamation law doesn’t apply to opinions or insults. But Wilson rejected Musk’s argument, in part because of an email interaction he had with BuzzFeed reporter Ryan Mac.
The lawsuit alleges that between July 15 and August 30, Musk periodically used Twitter and emails to the media to publish false and defamatory accusations against Unsworth, including accusations of pedophilia and child rape.
The initial “pedo guy” attack came after Unsworth gave a critical interview to the media saying Musk’s mini sub “had absolutely no chance of working.” The diving expert ended an interview segment by suggesting Musk should “stick his submarine where it hurts.”