On December 6, 2019, a team of Quinn Emanuel attorneys secured a complete defense jury verdict for Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, in a high-profile defamation claim brought against him by British caver Vernon Unsworth. Mr. Unsworth claimed that Mr. Musk defamed him when he sent a series of tweets referring to Mr. Unsworth as a “pedo-guy,” which were followed by an email from Mr. Musk to a reporter in which he called Mr. Unsworth a “child rapist.” Mr. Unsworth sought $190 million in damages.
The action, which experts and the press deemed the most significant social media-based defamation case to ever go to trial, arose from a dispute between Mr. Musk and Mr. Unsworth regarding Mr. Musk’s efforts to rescue twelve Thai boys and their soccer coach trapped in a flooded cave system in Northern Thailand. In July 2018, Mr. Musk and a team of SpaceX engineers built and delivered a mini-rescue pod to the Chiang Rai Province in Northern Thailand to help with the rescue. The Thai government and an international team of volunteers (including elite cave divers from the United Kingdom) rescued all twelve boys and their coach. Mr. Musk’s pod was not ultimately needed.
After the rescue was completed, Mr. Unsworth, a cave explorer who had assisted in the efforts to find the team, gave an interview to CNN criticizing Mr. Musk’s efforts and claiming that Mr. Musk engaged in a “PR stunt.” Mr. Unsworth also commented that Mr. Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts.” On July 15, 2018, in response to the interview, Mr. Musk published a series of tweets defending his efforts which were punctuated by insults calling Mr. Unsworth “sus” and a “pedoguy.” Mr. Musk later tweeted “Bet ya a signed dollar its true” in response to a tweet claiming that he called Mr. Unsworth a “pedo.” Mr. Musk deleted the tweets the same day.
Six weeks after sending the tweets, Mr. Musk accused Mr. Unsworth of being a “child rapist” who married twelve-year-old child bride in an “off-the-record” email to a reporter from BuzzFeed News. Mr. Musk made these statements based on reports he received from a private investigator he hired to investigate Mr. Unsworth in preparation for the litigation that Mr. Unsworth had already threatened. Unbeknownst to Mr. Musk, the investigator’s reports were fabricated, and the investigator himself turned out to be a convicted felon who had gone to prison for fraud. BuzzFeed published Mr. Musk’s email in full.
Shortly thereafter, Mr. Unsworth, represented by well-known defamation and media lawyers, sued Mr. Musk for defamation in the United States District Court for the Central District of California. Quinn Emanuel took over Mr. Musk’s defense after the Court denied his motion to dismiss. At trial, Quinn Emanuel’s defense focused on the theme that Mr. Musk’s tweet was a “JDART” (Joking Deleted Apologized-for Responsive Tweet). Mr. Musk’s tweet was the culmination of an argument between two people that was punctuated by insults—not a factual accusation of the crime of pedophilia. The firm also demonstrated that Mr. Unsworth had not suffered any injury. Instead, Mr. Unsworth had consistently sought to monetize his role in the cave rescue, and had received a number awards, including being named a Member of the British Empire by the Queen of England, even after Mr. Musk’s statement.
The downtown Los Angeles federal court jury returned a defense verdict for Mr. Musk after deliberating for less than half an hour.