Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is testifying in a trial in Los Angeles on Tuesday, after he allegedly defamed a British spelunker, Vernon Unsworth, who is best known for his efforts to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach from flooded caves in Thailand in the summer of 2018.
According to CNBC’s Jane Wells and Paul McNamara, who were in attendance at the trial, Musk started testimony with his arms tightly crossed in front of him sporting a dark suit, and occasionally sipping water. He clashed frequently with Unsworth lawyer L. Lin Wood, to the point where judge Stephen Wilson once warned “Let’s cut the repartee…that’s an order, not an invitation to a dance.”
The nut of Musk’s defense was that Unsworth criticized him first, and he was responding with similarly heated rhetoric, not a literal accusation of pedophilia.
The conflict began when Unsworth criticized Musk for his efforts to involve himself in the Thai cave rescue in July 2018.
Musk and his employees developed a mini submarine, which they billed as an escape pod that could transport the kids out of the caves. On July 8, 2018, Musk wrote in a tweet, “Mini-sub arriving in about 17 hours. Hopefully useful. If not, perhaps it will be in a future situation.”
The sub was never used in the rescue effort. After the rescue, Unsworth was asked about the mini-sub and Musk on an interview with CNN. He said that Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts,” and viewed Musk’s efforts as “just a PR stunt.”
Lashing back after that, Musk called the caver a “pedo guy” in public tweets, and “child rapist” in an email to a reporter at Buzzfeed. Unsworth filed the lawsuit in the U.S. in September 2018.
At one point in his Tuesday testimony, Musk said “I assume he literally didn’t mean to sodomize me with a submarine. I literally didn’t mean he was a pedophile.”
Musk calls Unsworth comments an ‘unprovoked attack’
Musk’s attorney Alex Spiro said in his opening statements that the case was “about insults not statements of fact.” He said Musk’s tweets were “not allegations of a crime,” but only “joking taunting tweets in a fight between men.”
Unsworth’s attorney, Wood, asked Musk how influential he is, in his own estimation.
Musk replied, “I’m not sure to the degree I’m influential,” adding “I have asked people to take climate change seriously…and I haven’t been successful.”
When Wood asked whether Musk thought he should choose his words carefully,” the Tesla CEO replied, “There are a lot of things I say, and not all of them have the same quality of thought…not everything can be thoughtful.”
Wood proceeded to review the timeline of Musk’s efforts in the Thai cave rescue.
Musk explained why he involved himself at all. He said at first he thought his help would not be needed, but after a Thai Navy SEAL, Saman Kunan, died in the rescue effort (with a monsoon bearing down) he changed his mind. “If immediate action wasn’t taken, the boys would die,” Musk said in court. “That would be on my conscience forever. I’ve got to do something. We’ve got to try.”
Before an afternoon break, Musk argued that Unsworth’s comments about his involvement in the rescue effort amounted to an “unprovoked attack.” Musk also described those comments as “wrong and insulting,” and said that’s why he insulted Unsworth back.
In late afternoon testimony, Musk described a letter Wood sent asking for a settlement a “shakedown letter” from a “shakedown lawyer,” saying “The core truth of it is extortion.”
But Musk admitted the investigator who offered to find “skeletons in (Unsworth’s) cupboards turned out to be a “professional con man,” to whom they paid $52,000 for no hard evidence about Unsworths’ past.
In a surprise moment, Musk’s lawyer, Spiro, asked him to describe his childhood in South Africa. Musk paused for long time before finally answering, “It wasn’t good.” He left the country at the age of 17.
Musk’s testimony will continue Wednesday.