Elon Musk May Have Talked His Way Into A Pretty Serious Defamation Lawsuit

from the no-slapp-issues-here dept

So many defamation lawsuits that we see are so obviously bogus on their face that often it feels like we should reconsider the rules for defamation in the first place. Over and over again we see defamation lawsuits that are obviously SLAPP suits, in which the powerful seek to silence those who criticize them. This lawsuit is one of the rare cases where it does not appear to be a SLAPP suit at all -- and, Elon Musk almost seemed to force the hand of Vern Unsworth into suing him for defamation. Musk, who is a visionary innovator, but who has been involved in increasingly bizarre behavior of late, kicked a bunch of this off with a tweet back in July calling Vern Unsworth a "pedo guy" after Unsworth criticized his submarine plan.

If you somehow missed all of this, there were 12 children trapped in a cave in Thailand, and Musk got intrigued by the rescue attempts and very quickly worked with his own engineers to design and prototype a small submarine that might be used to help rescue the kids. There were a lot of mixed reports on all of this, from some thanking and appreciating Musk making such an effort (he even flew to Thailand with the sub) to others mocking him for shoving himself into the rescue efforts. Wherever you stand on that debate, it really makes no difference for what came next. While some of those involved in the rescue thanked Musk for trying (even though his sub wasn't needed), Unsworth, who had spent years mapping the caves and was widely credited for both bringing in the more experienced divers and for helping the rescuers find the kids in the first place, was unimpressed by Musk's sub and said so. Specifically, he called it a PR stunt, said it had no chance of working, and said "he can stick his submarine where it hurts."

Musk -- quite understandably -- didn't appreciate those comments. However, his response calling Unsworth a "pedo guy" really seemed to come out of nowhere, followed up by Musk later betting a Twitter follower "a signed dollar" that it was true. However, soon after, Musk semi-apologized saying:

... my words were spoken in anger after Mr. Unsworth said several untruths & suggested I engage in a sexual act with the mini-sub, which had been built as an act of kindness & according to specifications from the dive team leader.

This is still slightly odd, as I don't think anyone thought Unsworth was legitimately suggesting Musk "engage in a sexual act with the mini-sub," but whatever. The issue appeared to be over, but Musk apparently just couldn't let it die. In August, when someone reminded him of his comments, Musk suggested he actually stood by his original comments by implying the lack of a defamation lawsuit suggested the original statements were true:

You don't think it's strange he hasn't sued me? He was offered free legal services.

Ryan Mac, a reporter at Buzzfeed, then wrote about how Unsworth had not only lawyered up (weeks before Musk's tweet) but also sent Musk a letter warning him of the impending lawsuit (again, sent well before Musk's tweet). In response to this Musk engaged in a truly bizarre series of emails with Mac, in which he not only reiterated some of his claims about Unsworth, but went even further, claiming Unsworth had moved to Thailand "for a child bride who was about 12 years old at the time" and also telling Mac to "stop defending child rapists."

Musk didn't supply any evidence to Mac, despite being asked directly if he could back up those claims. Mac's own reporting also failed to turn up evidence to back up those claims, and also debunked the lesser claims by Musk that Unsworth was "banned from the site" of the rescue divers.

And, that takes us to the actual complaint filed against Musk in federal court in California. The complaint is pretty thorough. It lays out the specific statements that it says are false and defamatory and rebuts them. Ken "Popehat" White notes that some of the statements are pretty clearly not defamatory -- as they're either opinion or hyperbole. But the emails to Buzzfeed with the direct statements including claiming Unsworth took a minor bride certainly appear to go over the line. White notes that there are defenses to this -- including a lack of actual malice (i.e., when Musk said those statements he believed them to be true and had no reason to think they were false). That... might actually fly. But, as White also notes, it seems highly unlikely that Musk can get this dismissed under California's anti-SLAPP law, as at least a few of these statements involve direct statements of fact and (at least on their face) don't appear to be supported by disclosed facts. White doesn't think the original "pedo guy" claim rises to the level of defamation, but that one could go either way. But, still, it really looks like the totally unnecessary emails to Buzzfeed are what really put Musk in a difficult spot in this lawsuit.

Still, the bigger issue for Musk is that the lawsuit notes Unsworth is also planning to file a similar lawsuit in the UK, where defamation laws are significantly more friendly to the plaintiffs, putting a burden on Musk to support his statements. Musk, of course, has basically all the money in the world to defend himself, and I do wonder if he'll try to file a counter-defamation lawsuit against Unsworth over Unsworth's comments (since Musk kept claiming they were false as well). If he does, it seems like Unsworth would actually have much stronger defenses against Musk, as none of Unsworth's comments appear to rise to defamation no matter how you look at them.

Perhaps Musk will decide to fight these cases out in court, though it wouldn't surprise me to see him just pay up to settle the cases and get them over and done with. But, as far as defamation cases go, this one seems a lot more legit than many of the ones we normally see.

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Filed Under: defamation, elon musk, mini-sub, rescue, thailand, think skin, uk, vern unsworth


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  1. icon
    Jan Tngring (profile), 21 Sep 2018 @ 3:48am

    Re: What if Unsworth looses?

    ”Mac”, not ”Marc”. ”Ryan Mac”.

    There is no edit?

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