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Elon Musk defamation trial in homestretch, jury may get case Friday

Reuters

LOS ANGELES  — Elon Musk arrived on Friday at a federal court in Los Angeles looking relaxed in a dark-colored suit, as a trial over whether the Tesla founder defamed a British cave explorer with tweets suggesting he was a pedophile approached its end.

Lawyers for Musk and the cave explorer Vernon Unsworth are expected to deliver closing arguments later in the day, and the three-man, five-woman jury is expected to begin deliberating shortly afterward.

Jurors must decide unanimously whether Musk, 48, defamed Unsworth with three July 15, 2018 tweets, and if so how much the billionaire must pay in damages.

The case is believed to be the first major defamation lawsuit by a private individual to go to trial over tweets.

Musk said his tweets were an "off the cuff" response to a July 13, 2018, CNN interview in which Unsworth said Musk's offer of a mini-submarine to help rescue a boys' soccer team from a flooded Thailand cave was a "PR stunt" and that Musk could "stick his submarine where it hurts."

Unsworth, 64, testified on Thursday that his insult was not to Mr. Musk personally and declined to apologize.

"I'm not sure how I need to apologize. It was my opinion at the time and I stand by that opinion," Unsworth said when cross-examined by one of Musk's lawyers.

Musk's tweets questioned Unsworth's role in the cave rescue and called him "pedo guy," with no evidence.

Unsworth testified that the tweets harmed his reputation by branding him a pedophile and a liar.

He seeks unspecified damages from Musk, who testified that he is worth about $20 billion.

The trial has revived discussion of Musk's erratic behavior during 2018.

This included when he used Twitter to float a leveraged buyout proposal for Tesla that was nowhere near a reality, prompting a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission lawsuit that he paid $20 million to settle.

For most of 2019, Musk, who has more than 29.9 million Twitter followers, has largely kept his public comments focused on Tesla's new models and improved profitability and on the technical progress of his SpaceX aerospace company.

Musk had offered a mini-submarine from SpaceX for the cave rescue.

To win the case, Unsworth must prove Musk was negligent in publishing a falsehood that clearly identified him and caused him harm. He does not need to show Musk acted with "actual malice," which is much tougher to prove.

Reporting by Nichola Groom and Rachel Parsons. Additional reporting by Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb.