Elon Musk is going to trial because he can’t cool it on Twitter.
On Friday, a California judge ruled that a cave rescue diver’s lawsuit against Musk can proceed. Vernon Unsworth sued Musk for more than $75,000 in compensation plus punitive damages after the entrepreneur baselessly called him “pedo guy” on Twitter. In an effort to have a judge summarily dismiss the case, Musk’s lawyers argued he was just venting.
That excuse seems to have reached its limit for Musk, who has previously faced legal jeopardy for tweeting about his company Tesla’s share value and appearing to violate copyright while tweeting a drawing of a farting unicorn. His Twitter problem is so bad he has his own set of Twitter rules from the Securities and Exchange Commission. And the troubles aren’t letting up soon.
Musk’s legal battle with Unsworth stemmed from an avoidable Twitter fight. When a boys’ soccer team became trapped in a Thailand cave last summer, Musk offered to design a miniature submarine that might transport the boys through the cave’s waterways and to safety. Officials passed on Musk’s solution. Instead, a team of divers brought together by Unsworth helped free the team.
In an interview after the rescues, Unsworth slammed Musk’s submarine as a “publicity stunt.” Musk struck back on Twitter, calling Unsworth “pedo guy.” When a Twitter user objected to the attack, Musk wrote: “Bet ya a signed dollar it’s true.”
Musk later implied that Unsworth wouldn’t sue him because the allegation was true. “Don’t you think it’s strange he hasn’t sued me?” he wrote in August.
In fact, Unsworth’s lawyers had already already sent Musk a letter stating their intent to sue for defamation, BuzzFeed reported. Musk continued to accuse Unsworth of misconduct in an email to BuzzFeed, which debunked many of those claims.
When Unsworth eventually sued Musk, the entrepreneur claimed his tweets shouldn’t be taken seriously because they were opinions that came during the heat of an argument. He also argued that his tweets were casual in nature and full of informal webspeak. That’s not protection from a lawsuit, a judge ruled Friday.
“It is certainly true, on the one hand, that Defendant’s statements used colloquialisms (e.g., ‘no problemo’) and shorthand (e.g., ‘sus,’ ‘pedo guy,’ and ‘obv’), sometimes consisted of fragment sentences, and included at least one typographical mistake,” the judge wrote. “However, on the other hand, Defendant’s tweets used generally proper grammar with punctuation and had very few misspellings. And, as discussed above, Twitter’s 280-character limit accounts for abbreviations without necessarily generating an inference of opinion.”
Trial is scheduled to start October 22.
Musk is headed into the case just after settling two other Twitter disputes.
In September, Musk settled with the SEC. The agency sued him last summer, over one of his tweets that claimed to have enough funding to take his car company Tesla private when its stock hit $420 per share. Tesla stock prices soared after his announcement. But Musk didn’t have the funding. Instead the $420 figure originated from a joke about marijuana, his girlfriend told a friend.
As part of their settlement, the SEC ordered Musk to pay a $20 million fine and receive Tesla’s approval before he made any more written communications that could affect Tesla shares. The agency accused Musk of violating that rule in February when he tweeted an over-optimistic figure for Tesla’s production rate.
The agency took Musk back to court, where they agreed on a stricter set of Twitter rules for his tweets about Tesla.
Musk’s tweets also dragged him into a legal fight over a farting unicorn. In 2017, Musk tweeted a picture of a mug, decorated with a farting unicorn. The mug’s artist, potter Tom Edwards, was a Musk fan. But when pictures of Edwards’ design started appearing in Tesla materials, Edwards hired a lawyer. On Twitter, Musk called a potential lawsuit “kinda lame” and speculated that he’d increased Edwards’ mug sales.
Even some of Musk’s well-intentioned jokes sometimes mean trouble for his companies. On April Fools' Day in 2018, Musk tweeted that Tesla was going bankrupt. Tesla stock fell 7 percent that day.
Musk is the only big tech CEO who keeps finding himself in Twitter trouble. Some of that might be due to the way he uses Twitter. A 2018 Wall Street Journal analysis found that Musk tweets far more than any other tech CEO, aside from Salesforce chief Marc Benioff. And unlike most tech CEOs in the study, Musk engaged in considerably more conversations on Twitter.
Some of those exchanges were helpful, with Musk acting as tech support for Tesla customers. Others were not. “You’re an idiot,” he tweeted at one transit blogger who criticized him.
Musk’s feed could be a reprieve from the generic platitudes that other CEOs (or more likely, their public relations teams) tweet. “The actual amount of time I spend on Twitter is tiny,” Musk tweeted last June. “My tweets are literally what I’m thinking at the moment, not carefully crafted corporate bs, which is really just banal propaganda.”
The trouble is, Musk’s unfiltered musings are frequently cringey and (in the case of his stock price tweets) occasionally disastrous. It’s like finally meeting a talking dog, only for it to speak in dated memes and bad financial advice.
Rapper Azealia Banks previously accused Musk of tweeting while high. In now-deleted Instagram posts last year, Banks claimed to have flown to California on an invitation from Musk and his girlfriend, electro-pop artist Grimes.
“I waited around all weekend while grimes coddled her boyfriend for being too stupid to know not to go on twitter while on acid,” Banks alleged. “They invited me here to stay and told me I couldn’t bring my boyfriend … it was probably some weird threesome sex shit to begin with.”