Musk Defamation Trial Continues With Discussion Of His Wealth Before The Jury

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.

41 thoughts on “Musk Defamation Trial Continues With Discussion Of His Wealth Before The Jury”

  1. KEY PASSAGE FROM COLUMN

    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.
    …………………………………………

    See that, Musk called the diver a ‘pedo guy’. And Turley has no sympathy. Yet that same type of slander occurs daily on this blog. Yet here the victims of such slander are actually banned if they complain.

  2. Both Unsworth and Musk were out of order for trading insults when children and their coach were trapped in a pitch black cave with rising water. This was not about them; it was about a desperate rescue attempt of children.

    It was wrong for Unsworth to claim that Musk was only doing this as a PR stunt. That was slander. It was wrong for him to tell Musk to shove the sub up his nether region. That was rude and vulgar.

    It was wrong for Musk to call Unsworth a pedophile. That was slander, and could actually ruin his life.

    They were both wrong. Musk is more wrong, as he caused more damage. And they both suck eggs for putting their own egos ahead of kids in danger. On the other hand, they also both personally helped in the rescue effort. It’s really too bad they insisted on a pissing match that overshadows their efforts to help.

    1. Instead of throwing gas on a candleflame, they should have settled this like reasonable human beings. Musk should have appeared on air, hat in hand, and apologized sincerely for claiming Unsworth was a pedophile. Unsworth should have appeared and said he’s very sorry for telling Musk to stick it, or that it was only for the PR. Then they should have shook hands and moved on.

      Or had a cage match in Thunderdome, or Minute to Win It. In any case it would be settled and done. This is going to drag on with two resentful people unwilling to admit they were both wrong.

  3. If the worth of the defendant is relevant to punitive damages, then this is a no-brainer. It should also be a political no-brainer, however, that the court being in charge of what the jury is or is not allowed to hear is outrageous. The jury is a potential institution of direct democracy, in criminal and civil cases alike, but which has had its democratic potential undermined by the presumptuous rules of evidence which patronizingly assume that juries are volatile and incompetent (whereas the lawyers and judges, of course, are not).

  4. Did not the Plaintiff start this? Is this not a “So’s your old man!” kindergarten thing? When I tell you to “stick your phony sub” and you respond with ” up yours pedo” are we not even? I guess not if you have a few billion. “Tis a strange, strange, world, Master Jack.”

    1. “When I tell you to “stick your phony sub” and you respond with ” up yours pedo” are we not even?”
      *****************
      Yeah, a common insult justifies accusing another of a heinous crime. “Your mother wears army boots. Oh? Well, you’re a serial killer.”

      Only your world is strange, Chuck.

  5. While Pelosi Nadler, Schiff, et al have been frenetically engaging in short-term self-gratification (aka masturb8ing), placating their BDSM voyeuristic dimwitted fans, the US Senate has been maintaining their deliberative stance.

    Nice!

    ……..

    https://twitter.com/ChuckGrassley/status/1202701558745616397

    ChuckGrassley

    Verified account

    @ChuckGrassley
    Follow Follow @ChuckGrassley
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  6. I mean the guy did tell him he could stick the submarine where it hurts. He now acts like he merely stated it was a PR stunt and criticized the submarine but didn’t attack Musk personally. That sounds like a personal attack. Suggesting you stick something you know where “shove it up your bum” as it were.

    Musk claims he based his statement off a cursory internet source and believed his tweet to have been true at the time. Was it reasonable for him to believe so. If not the jury should award in Vernon Unsworth‘s favor. If they don’t believe such a search was ever conducted they should as well. The amount should be based on the extent of the injury and not his personal net worth. We know he’s rich and has the ability to pay but the purpose of having him to state his $ is prejudicial.

    Otherwise, the next guy who starts hurling insults at Bill Gates will be entitled to a nice windfall when Gates replies he’s a commie or implies his mother was promiscuous, though if he claims the man specifically raped and gave someone AIDS he should probably settle

  7. The entire media has repeatedly published multiple lies against Republicans and the president.

    It’s hard to imagine how anyone can be sued for a Tweet in today’s environment. For 3 years, the Democrat leadership has called the entire Trump family and many of the Trump administration and campaign “Traitors” amongst other lies which were demonstrably false.

    Fortunately, Nunes and Covington Catholic student are suing. Musks tweet was idiotic but really ? A big financial penalty when our Democrat leaders and the biased press have been doing this repeatedly for 3 years and no one has been punished yet!!!

    1. SBG,
      Thank you. The he said she said an imaginary source said “NEWS” reporting would have created a lot of problems when I was young. I can’t recall the name but I remember a reporter was jailed for contempt of court when he refused to reveal his source. Our local radio reported quotes from an unknown source and was required to broadcast a retraction every 20 minutes for 3 days in 1970. I was attending the funeral of the slandered party a couple of months ago and someone brought up how sad it was…… Once the gun was fired the bullet could not be recalled. The slander is still remember the retraction is not. So sad.

      At one time it was the National Inquirer that had crazy articles. I can’t tell them from the rest now.

  8. How can the jury assess a fair punitive damages award (that is designed to punish the defendant for his intentional tort) without knowing what he’s worth? I really don’t see another side to this one. Is a million bucks against Musk the same as a million against me?

    1. Mespo, if you were the plaintiff’s attorney I would be a bad juror for your case. Too much litigation already occurs and I don’t see the need for more. You would have to prove a loss of revenue. To award damages to hurt Musk would be crazy. Maybe punitives 1-3X actual damages plus attorney costs (doubtful that I would grant even that) but how could anyone justify more than that? On the other side Musk’s reputation could be said to have been at stake so perhaps that should be judged as well when hearing the case. The other thing you would have to prove is that Musk had absolutely no reason to say what he did in a tweet. Except in responses to the plaintiff I don’t think Musk tried to push the claim.

      What do you think you could say to change my mind.

      1. Allen:
        That’s why you’d be peremptory no 1 or “for cause” with that attitude. 😀 You know conservatives typically make bad Jurors. Never like to follow the law. See all you libs, I can be objective, too!

        1. Mespo, When I was in juror selection I was shocked when I was picked. It was a shoplifting case caught on camera. My view of the defendent radically changed during the trial after she was put on the witness stand and I thought I was going to have to fight to find the defendent innocent. Prior to that I thought I would have to fight to find her guilty.

          I asked the defendent’s lawyer why he took such a risk selecting me (my profile appeared to be very much against his client) and he said it was precisely for the reason that I changed my opinion so radically. He said that he felt he wanted more educated people to see through the story as he needed just one juror to push for innocence.. He was right. It was a 6 person jury. 2 were for innocent, 2 were on the borderline and 2 were for conviction. The strength of the respective positions exactly correllated with the amount of education each individual had with the least educated voting for conviction.

          There was a big fight to get 6 people to find her innocent and it scared me because it appeared that juries can very easily convict an essentially innocent individual when there is a complexity. I spoke to the judge later because I thought it was an injustice to bring her to trial and he told me that no matter what the jury said he would have reversed the decision if it had been for conviction.

          1. Allan:
            If she was “caught on camera” it’s hard to believe she was innocent. That said, you heard the evidence and as I always say around here, you don’t call the horse race until all the horses have crossed the finish line. A lot of things happen in a trial and juries mostly get it right. My guess is the tape was ambiguous as it usually is. I always want to know more about the person charged than the act itself. Good people sometimes do bad things but bad people do them more regularly. That’s not a particularly legal approach but it’s a practical one in judging someone’s actions. Character trumps most everything else in my experience. Look around here if you have any doubt about that observation.

            1. Yes, Mespo, she was clearly caught on tape and I could not find her guilty because circumstances can be more important than direct evidence.

              It is a long story. The police didn’t do a good job. She was young, innocent and not too bright from the inner city. There were two women and a baby in a carriage. When the police came to arrest the shoplifters for some reason they let the second woman go with the baby. That woman was most definitely guilty and her character was not of high standing.

              The other woman was the shoplifter and the defendent was the dupe. One had to listen to the defendent’s testimony during which I inadvertanly broke out with a small laugh over the peculiar situation. I was a bit angry about the circumstances and the fact that she was being charged. That is why I spoke to the judge afterwards.

              I personally knew a number of the judges and socialized with them and one of the most respected judges made a comment that also scared me. In certain types of serious criminal cases he said he would hate to be the innocent defendent being tried by a jury.

              1. Sorry, I would have convicted her. She did the crime and ought to the time. The shopkeeper has rights paramount to the thief.

                1. You say that because you don’t know the story or you believe that strict adherence to a law that doesn’t concern itself with all circumstances is more important than onw’a humanity. I believe that in her case she had little choice but to act in concert with the actual thief. Eventually she had to go home. If I was wrong then she will commit another crime and be punished if the brief lesson didn’t teach her anything. If I am right and she was convicted then we did great harm to an individual who had little choice.

                  Mespo, understand that I initially thought I would be fighting to convict her and ‘throw away the key’ but the circumstances in that particular case made me opt for the other side. From what I have read from you I think I believe you would have strongly agreed with my position had you been there. [The judge who had no compunction about putting a person in jail felt the same as did. When questioned he stated he would never have permitted the verdict to stand.]

    2. yeah i really like Musk, he does much for the public good, very insightful, productive industrialist.

      but he did a wrong and stupid thing, clearly seems to have defamed the guy and needs a spanking.

      defamation is a real tort, a falsehood, which hurts people, and it’s bandied about way too much in our society.

      the news media especially should get a lot of punishment however, they’re a “Google”-plex times worse than Musk.

      but for NYT v Sullivan a precedent that needs another look

    3. That argument remains a contentious subject, that two individuals subject to the same criminal or civil liability, suffer different punishments based upon their assets.

      From one perspective, it is just to fine the defendants a fixed amount or a percentage of actual damages. But from another perspective a wealth person who pays a $1,000 fine is not deterred or effectively punished for bad behavior when a person of less means suffers a great financial cost. So whether justice is served is entirely dependent upon the perspective at which one defines equal justice.

      I’ve read some time ago that at least one Scandinavian nation asses traffic violation fines with a factor denoting income of the accused, the basis is the latter strategy before. At least in WA that would be considered unconstitutional, though there are some assessments that the courts ruled are unconstitutional such as an indigent person assessed Legal Financial Obligations.

      Surely it could be said that a McDonald’s sized restaurant would not be deterred from serving scorching hot coffee if it received a claim for a thousand dollars in punitive damages occasionally. The retraining and temperature measuring equipment to comply would be much more expensive than paying a small damage demand. But a five million dollar damage judgment effects change.

      Yet when a person has to factor in their income or other esoteric punishments such as income based fines by the state, the citizen can have difficulty gauging the significance of compliance or the cost of violation. That does in a way violate the tenets of proper notice given by government of statutory constraints.

      In WA the supreme court sets, the base fines for each violation of law or categories of law in the traffic code. (with influence by the legislature) In that regard a person needs only to look at the “bail schedule” to know what jeopardy they face. An advantage to this is an accused in a traffic case can derive the maximum fine they potentially face and make an informed decision on the feasibility of contesting the charge or simply paying the fine and putting it behind them. Yet if we had a system where there was no definitive range of potential fines, there is a strong disincentive to have their day in court because a judge might fine them well in excess of what the traffic infraction form states their default penalty would be.

    4. Consider this case. A service station is robbed an the owner has called the police. The front glass is broken and oil is spilled on the floor. A car pulls in and the driver is told “we are not open”. The driver says he is on empty and needs gas to get to work. The station owner powers the pump and fills the tank. The driver walks over to the window slips on the oil and as he falls grabs the glass. The court would not allow the jury to know if insurance was involved. The $100,000 award caused the station owner to loose his business. He did not have insurance. A juror told me they were reluctance to make the award he wanted to just pay the medical bills. A loud mouth spoke up and declared the insurance company had plenty of money. Someone says we don’t know he has insurance. Loud mouth declares all businesses are “required” to have insurance. The juror was upset because he was for paying the $100 emergency room bill and calling it even. The driver was a car mechanic. The garage owner moved him in the office as service manager after his injury. So he got a raise and a bundle of money. The station owner lost his station, works for the new owner and has a 20 monthly note.

      Of course in this case the jury has some idea of his worth but is it a matter of his worth or the damage done. If I drive past your house swerve to miss a dog and destroy your mailbox do I pay more for a new box because I’m driving a Jag and less when driving my 92 F150?

      I do see your point but am wondering is the damage more severe when he commits the act than when you do? Should the punishment befit the crime or the criminal?

      1. Neither did George Zimmerman. A trial court arbitrarily insisted he had no case against the lying local NBC affiliate.

          1. Estovir – if Zimmermann can prove half his case, law licenses will be lost, people sent to jail and money transferred in George’s account. I have read the complaint and it is horrifying if it is true.

            1. If you say so. Bad judges and bad prosecutors have almost comprehensive immunity no matter what sort of malfeasance, misfeasance, or nonfeasance of which they may be guilty. The complaint as summarized in the press contends that Rachel Jeantel was persuaded to perjure herself, pretending she’d been on the phone with Martin when he was actually on the phone with his gf who refused to provide testimony. The trouble for the prosecution was that she was like all their other witnesses, inadvertantly helpful for the defense. I’m wagering Zimmerman will regret getting involved in this.

              1. DSS – he is going after Krump (sp?), the real gf, police department, some publisher who printed Krump’s salacious book, etc. The complaint is very powerful and only part of it is open to an SLAPP attack.

                The strongest part of the complaint, if proven,would get Krump disbarred and make Zimmermann rich.

                1. Crump and his associate Ryan Julison certainly merit injury if the law is just. No clue why he’d list the real gf as a defendant. Not aware she’s uttered a word about the case at any time.

                  Zimmerman’s account of his life over the last seven years at American Thinker is a distressing one. No doubt he and his family have been harassed horridly, but I cannot imagine how it is he hasn’t been able to find work (or how he’s paid his bills).

                  1. i read this

                    https://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2019/12/democrats_are_pushing_america_into_civil_war.html

                    the idea of a popular rebellion is a quaint notion that right wingers have cherished for a long time.
                    Each new insult to law order and the common good comes and goes.
                    The closest things to a popular rebellion which has happened, I would say, is the election of Nixon in 1968, and trump in 2016…… where have both lead?

                    The cherished right wing notion that a revolutionary correction is possible here, lacks the understanding that successful rebellions have leadership. They are NOT accidents, they have NEVER been accidents, all successful revolutions have been prepared and planned like any other war. And they are made ready, not just at the lowest level, or the highest level, but in the middle. cadres…….there are few if any popular conservative revolutionary cadres standing ready to effectuate rebellion

                    this is where the American Left has its strength. Not in the freaks for hire like BLM or antifa, but in the legions of bureaucrats they’ve got on the payroll and those which are on someone else’s payroll and are sufficiently intimidated to go along with things.

                    These middling officials are well paid, unlike the Soviet apparatchiks, which were jealous and greedy and looking for a big increase in standard of living if they defected against the Soviet system. Well, the only thing that can force someone off a well paid position is fear.

                    Presently, they have little to fear. For now. That could change quickly. If they keep on pushing, if they shut down free speech on the internet more, if they stay aggressive; and if that coincides with another big recession– then the ferment will boil.

          2. I’ve quite stopped caring about the welfare of the media. Given that the courts are closed to the aggrieved, radical self-help is not categorically unjust.

      2. mespo – Unsworth did an international TV interview in which he insulted Musk and his offer of the sub. At the least he is a limited purpose public firgure.

  9. Musk should have settled out of court. He’s a busy man and his pride shouldn’t be worth the risk and the distraction. (Course, you might have said the same when he insisted on giving his 1st wife her walking papers).

    Just out of puerile curiosity, I’d be interested in knowing how much he’s levered. I’m recalling the net worth of Thomas (“The World is Flat”) Friedman’s in-laws declined by 97% when real estate values imploded.

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