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Elon Musk’s Defamation Case and “Public Figures”

By December 1, 2019 January 2nd, 2020 No Comments

As Elon Musk’s defamation trial is about to get underway, a district court judge in Los Angeles recently made the case for his defense significantly more difficult in a November ruling.

In case you missed it, Tesla founder Elon Musk is the subject of a defamation lawsuit by British cave diver Vernon Unsworth. Unsworth was one of the main divers responsible for rescuing the boys’ soccer team who became trapped in a cave in Thailand following heavy rains. Musk offered the use of a Tesla-designed miniature submarine for their rescue operations. After Unsworth rejected the offer as a “P.R. stunt,” Musk called Unsworth a “pedo guy” on Twitter and a “child rapist” in an email to a Buzzfeed reporter.

Musk’s efforts to have the case thrown out

Musk had argued that his comments were common insults and not meant to be taken for factual statements. He also argued that Unsworth was a public figure. Unfortunately for Musk, Los Angeles District Court Judge Stephen V. Wilson rejected both arguments. Most significantly, he ruled that Unsworth was not a public figure.

Public figures and defamation

By arguing that Unsworth was a public figure, Musk was trying to require a more difficult standard for defamation for his case. Generally, defamation against a public figure requires “actual malice,” meaning that the person accused of defamation would need to willingly spread falsehoods to damage the public figure.

Because Unsworth has been ruled a private figure, the standard is much more lenient. Prosecutors now only to demonstrate that Musk acted with negligence—that is, that he did not exercise appropriate caution in his damaging statements.

Seeking damages for defamation

Unsworth is seeking over $75,000 in damages from Musk for his statements. Given Musk’s high profile and the intensely defamatory nature of an accusation of pedophilia, it’s not surprising to see such a high figure. Defamation can cause irrevocable damage to a person’s professional and private reputation.

If you have been defamed, you deserve justice. At the Law Offices of Brian A. Newman, we’ve been standing up for Torrance and Los Angeles County clients for over 40 years. We’ll protect your reputation and help you secure fair compensation so you can move on with your life. Call (424) 275-4014 today to schedule a complimentary consultation with an experienced attorney.