Elon Musk won his defence against a charge of defamation on Friday afternoon, when a jury in Los Angeles found for the Tesla boss after less than an hour of deliberation.
Vernon Unsworth, a British diver, had sought $190m in damages over tweets Mr Musk sent last year that included calling him “pedo guy”. Mr Unsworth claimed that the tweet amounted to a false allegation of paedophilia, while Mr Musk argued in court this week that his comment had only been meant as a general insult.
“My faith in humanity is restored,” Mr Musk said as he left the court. Appearing on two successive days of the four-day trial, he had claimed that his “pedo” reference was a common insult in his native South Africa, rather than a specific allegation.
The Twitter spat broke out after Mr Unsworth accused Mr Musk of grandstanding in June last year, after he sent a number of engineers from his electric car company, along with a small submarine, to try assist in the rescue of 12 boys who were trapped in a cave in Thailand. That provoked the Tesla chief to lash out on Twitter, where he has nearly 30m followers.
Lawyers for Mr Unsworth had pointed to other tweets and actions by Mr Musk to try to persuade the jury that the accusation had been meant literally.
These included a later tweet asking why Mr Unsworth had not sued if the allegation was false, as well as Mr Musk’s use of a private investigator to try to dig up evidence of paedophilia.
The court battle was Mr Musk’s second brush with legal jeopardy over a wayward tweet, and another sign of how his confrontational Twitter style has been a mixed blessing for Tesla shareholders.
In August 2018, he wrongly claimed on Twitter that he was close to a buyout of his electric car company, with “funding secured”. That brought action from the Securities and Exchange Commission and a stipulation that any future messages concerning his company be vetted first by Tesla’s legal department.
However, while Mr Musk’s most controversial tweets have made him an increasingly polarising figure, his huge Twitter audience has also been a boon to Tesla. The company does not advertise its cars, relying on word of mouth and media coverage which has been boosted by Mr Musk’s own personal profile.
During the trial, Mr Musk said that his company maintained only a very small public relations department, and that most of his tweets get covered by the media.