On April 26, 2019, U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson denied Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s motion to dismiss a defamation lawsuit. No detailed order was filed; Judge Wilson simply made a text-only docket entry declining Musk’s request.
Back in September 2018, Vernon Unsworth brought suit against Musk, alleging defamation arising out of tweets and emails sent by Musk. Unsworth, who has in excess of 40 years of spelunking experience, played a pivotal role in rescuing a dozen young soccer players trapped in a Thailand cave earlier in 2018. In June, Musk created a capsule tube to assist in the rescue of the players; however, according to court filings, the capsule arrived at the cave site after the rescue was nearing its completion.
Accordingly, in an interview with CNN following the rescue, Unworth directed criticism toward Musk and deemed his recovery efforts to be a “PR stunt.” In response, Musk issued a series of tweets and emails with a BuzzFeed reporter, in which Musk referred to Unsworth as a “pedo guy” and found it suspicious that Unsworth was “a British expat guy who lives in Thailand.”
Following Musk’s comments, Unsworth issued a demand letter to Musk; per Musk’s emails with the same reporter following this impending lawsuit, Musk reiterated his claims and noted, “I […] hope he sues me.” Though Musk ultimately deleted his tweets and issued an apology, the lawsuit filed by Unsworth claims Musk failed to retract his accusations of pedophilia.
As a general matter, for a plaintiff to prove a defamation claim, he or she must establish that: (1) the defendant made a false statement of fact about them; (2) that the statement was made/published to a third party; (3) that the defendant who made the statement did so negligently, recklessly, or intentionally; and (4) that due to the statement, plaintiff’s reputation was damaged. As such, the focus will likely now turn to not only the proof of these individual factors, but also to Musk’s responses to these claims given the recent denial of his motion to dismiss.