A defamation case filed last year against Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk after he repeatedly called a British cave diver “pedo guy” will go to trial on October 22, a U.S. district judge determined Friday.
Vernon Unsworth, the British cave diver, filed a defamation lawsuit in September 2018 in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California after Musk called him a “pedo guy” and made other statements insinuating he was a pedophile in a public attack on Twitter.
U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson denied a motion to dismiss the case and instead scheduled a date for trial. 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 and ex-TechCrunch journalist Drew Olanoff .
“Considering the totality of the circumstances—including the general context of Defendant’s statements, the specific context of the statements, and the statements’ susceptibility of being proved true or false—a reasonable factfinder could easily conclude that Defendant’s statements, as pleaded in the complaint, implied assertions of objective fact,” Wilson wrote in the decision.
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.”
Musk lashed out on Twitter and insinuated that Unsworth was a pedophile. He later deleted the offending tweet and tried to backpedal — even offering an apology of sorts on Twitter. And it could have all ended there. But then Musk dug it all up again during a debate with Olanoff — once again on Twitter. Olanoff had brought up the “pedo guy” attack as an example of Musk telling untruths.