Tesla Inc. shares were flat Tuesday, ahead of the start of a trial in Los Angeles of the company’s Chief Executive Elon Musk in a defamation lawsuit brought by a British diver who Musk called a “pedo guy” in a Tweet.
Musk tweeted the insult in July of 2018 at Vernon Unsworth, a diver and cave explorer who played a key role in rescuing a youth soccer team who were trapped deep inside a cave formation in Thailand. Musk had sent a mini-submarine to save the 12 boys and their coach, who were facing rising waters during monsoon season.
But the device proved impractical and the boys were instead rescued by a team of divers, one of whom died during the effort. Unsworth angered Musk by dismissing his efforts as a publicity stunt in an interview with CNN.
Musk deleted the tweet and apologized for the remark, but later repeated the allegation in an email to a BuzzFeed reporter. Unsworth denied all of Musk’s allegations and sued for defamation.
The trial is expected to last about five days and Musk is expected to testify in his own defense. A federal judge, Judge Stephen V. Wilson of the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, rejected a recent effort by Musk to have the suit thrown out and also ruled that Unsworth is not a public figure, a move that lowers the bar for him to prove his case, according to media reports.
Rescued schoolboys are moved from a Royal Thai Police helicopter to an awaiting ambulance
“This case creates the ‘perfect storm,’ where a jury is going to tell us what they think about this kind of conduct on social media,” said L. Lin Wood, a lawyer for Mr. Unsworth, told the New York Times.
The spat with Unsworth came in a turbulent year for Musk, who also angered the Securities and Exchange Commission with a now-famous “going private” tweet, in which he seemed to suggest the company had lined up financing for a deal. As part of a settlement agreement with the regulator, Musk was stripped of his chairman title and Tesla TSLA, -0.05% was ordered to put in place additional controls and procedures to oversee Musk’s communications.
Musk was later forced to defend himself in a Manhattan court for failing to comply with that order in a fresh series of tweets sent in February.
Tesla shares have gained 0.4% in 2019, while the S&P 500 SPX, -1.21% has gained about 23%.