Elon Musk wins libel claim

Judith Thompson

The libel claim against Elon Musk has been very much in the public eye recently. Elon Musk tweeted that one of the rescuers helping to free 12 boys trapped in a cave in Thailand in June 2018 was a “pedo guy”. The tweet was followed up by other messages from Elon Musk, notably a message saying “bet ya a signed dollar it’s true” and another saying “stop defending child rapists”. 

The statements were made about Vernon Unsworth an experienced caver, who shared his time between England and Thailand.

Mr Unsworth was very clear that the statements Elon Musk had made were entirely untrue. Accusing someone of being a paedophile is one of the worst accusations that can be made against a person, and understandably, Mr Unsworth wanted to take action to rectify the harm which had been caused to his reputation. 

Mr Unsworth elected to start proceedings against Mr Musk in the United States. Unlike England, defamation cases in the US are still decided by a jury. In addition, the damages awarded by a jury for successful defamation claims are a lot higher than defamation claims in England.

A crucial factor in bringing a claim in the USA, is that it is up to the claimant to prove that what has been said about them is untrue. In England, it is up to a defendant to prove that what they have said about the claimant is true.

In a decision which surprised many, Mr Unsworth’s claim failed spectacularly. The jury threw out his claim in less than an hour, after listening to the evidence for four days.

Judith Thompson, partner at Samuels Solicitors LLP with a specialism in defamation claims says: “Mr Unsworth was humiliated by the original messages posted by Elon Musk, and unfortunately he has now been further humiliated by losing this defamation claim. Had Mr Unsworth issued proceedings in the English courts, I believe his claim would have had a far greater chance of success. However, he is now out of time to start a claim in England, as more than 12 months have passed since the tweets were published”.

This case is a salutary reminder that it is important for claimants in defamation claims to choose their jurisdiction wisely. Whilst damages for libel in the English courts may not be as high as those awarded by juries in the US, the burden of proof being on the claimant rather than the defendant, means the claimant is placed under immense pressure from the outset.

If you have been the victim of libel or slander, and require assistance and legal advice, contact us for a discussion about how we can help.