The defamation trial against Elon Musk is unfolding in Los Angeles, but one story caught my eye from a litigation perspective. Yesterday, the federal judge in Unsworth v. Musk, 18-cv-08048, overruled an objection and ordered Musk to tell the jury how much he is worth. It was a surprising and troubling bench decision in my view. Most judges bar such questions to avoid prejudicing a jury. When a jury hears that someone is worth $20 billion, it can make a verdict and award seem like chump change in the jury room. While I greatly respect his brilliance and accomplishments, I have little sympathy for Musk in the case. He is being sued for a tweet calling a diver a “pedo guy” after he criticized Musk’s effort to rescue trapped kids in a Thai cave. Musk seems to be relying on a Trump-like defense that he just let’s it rip on Twitter and it was a flippant moment.
Vernon Unsworth sued Musk over what the billionaire called “a flippant, off-the-cuff insult.” Musk went off on Unsworth after he sent engineers with a specially built mini submarine to help with the rescue of 12 kids and their coach. It was not used and Unsworth said on CNN that Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts.” He said the sub was a PR stunt with no chance of working. That is when Musk bizarrely called Unsworth a pedophile, a false claim made even more outrageous by the fact that Unsworth was trying to rescue young children.
Musk’s wealth is estimated at $26.6 billion with both SpaceX and Tesla in the mix. However, Musk said that both are not liquid. Nevertheless, he as a credit line of $500 million.
The court allowed the question because the jury is allowed to consider punitive damages and the worth of the company or individual is relevant. I have always been uneasy on how that question is addressed in these trials. As a defense attorney, I recoil at the potential prejudicial impact while recognizing that there are good-faith arguments on the other side of this question.
Also damaging is the fact that Musk’s staff paid a private investigator to look into Unsworth’s past and offered him a $10,000 bonus if he found anything bad. The investigator is accused of producing false information and his aide is accused to telling the investigator to leak it to the media. That is all fair game and could rightfully enrage the jury.