Lawyer for British diver says Elon Musk’s ‘pedo guy’ tweet left him with no other option than to sue

LOS ANGELES — Helping rescue a dozen boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand should have been one of a British diver’s proudest moments. Instead he found himself branded a pedophile on Twitter by billionaire Elon Musk, his lawyers said Tuesday.

Vernon Unsworth “did the only thing he could do,” attorney Taylor Wilson said during opening statements in a defamation trial. He sued Musk in federal court in Los Angeles after the Tesla TSLA, +0.40%  CEO called him a “pedo guy” in a tweet, seeking unspecified damages.

Musk’s attorney said Unsworth started the spat — belittling Musk’s efforts to help with the rescue by building a mini-submarine to transport the boys. Unsworth said it was nothing more than a “PR stunt” and Musk could stick the contraption “where it hurts.” The sub was never used.

Musk’s lawyer, Alex Spiro, said Unsworth deserves nothing for what he called “joking, taunting tweets in a fight between men.”

The shame and mortification Unsworth said he experienced is undercut by the attention he received after the rescue, Spiro said, including honors from the Thai king and British prime minister and offers from agents and film crews.

“There’s a little more to this Twitter insult, and you’ll hear it,” Spiro told jurors.

Musk, who is expected to testify early in the case, has apologized for lashing out at Unsworth. He removed his tweet, widely interpreted as a reference to a pedophile, and disputed that’s what he meant.

“’Pedo guy’ was a common insult used in South Africa when I was growing up,” Musk said in a court declaration. “It is synonymous with ‘creepy old man’ and is used to insult a person’s appearance and demeanor.”

Unsworth’s lawyers laughed off that explanation, saying Musk responded to a question about whether he had accused Unsworth of being a pedophile with another tweet that said, “Bet ya a signed dollar it’s true.”

The diver’s lawyers also said Musk hired private investigators to dig up evidence Unsworth was a child molester, which they never found.

The lawsuit is not the first time Musk’s tweets have landed him in hot water.

Musk and Tesla reached a $40 million settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission last year over allegations he misled investors with a tweet declaring he had secured financing to buy out the electric car maker. He agreed in the settlement to have future tweets about the company screened.

He went back to court on accusations he violated that agreement by tweeting a misleading figure about how many cars Tesla would manufacture this year. The SEC sought to hold him in contempt of court, which led to a new agreement imposing tighter controls on Musk’s tweets about the company.

The cave drama played out for more than two weeks in summer 2018.

Musk and engineers from his SpaceX rocket company custom-built a mini-submarine, which was heavily publicized but never used.

Unsworth, a diver and caving expert whose advice was considered crucial in the rescue operation, said the sub would never have fit in the cave.

Musk responded two days later with his series of tweets. Musk claims he wasn’t making a factual statement and no one reading his tweet would take it seriously and interpret it as defamatory.

Despite removing the tweets, he later suggested in emails to the news website BuzzFeed that Unsworth was a “child rapist” and had moved to northern Thailand to take “a child bride who was about 12 years old at the time.” He provided no evidence.

Unsworth is seeking unspecified damages for pain, suffering and emotional distress. The defense has resisted efforts to turn over financial records to show Musk’s wealth but has stipulated his net worth exceeds $20 billion.

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