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LOS ANGELES – Billionaire Tesla Inc. boss Elon Musk went on trial on Tuesday in a defamation lawsuit brought by a British man who accuses Musk of falsely branding him a pedophile in a Twitter message last year.
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Musk was seen walking into the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles around midday after the jury was selected.
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Jurors will consider whether Musk, whose Twitter habits have long been under a microscope, owes British rescue diver Vernon Unsworth punitive and other damages for harming his reputation by calling him “pedo guy.”
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Unsworth sued Musk in September 2018, two months after playing a leading role in the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach from the flooded Tham Luang Nang Non cave.
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Prospective jurors were quizzed for possible bias, including whether they could be fair to billionaires, like Musk, or people who lived in Thailand, like Unsworth.
One man was quickly excused after saying he was interviewing for a job with Tesla, while two women were dismissed after saying they followed Musk’s tweets and could not be impartial.
The trial before U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson is scheduled to last about five days. Musk is expected to testify in his own defense. He has apologized, saying “pedo guy” was a common insult in South Africa where he grew up.
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With 29.8 million followers, Musk has made his Twitter account a major source of publicity for his Palo Alto, California-based electric car company, which does not advertise. While the case does not involve Tesla, investors and regulators have expressed concerns about some of Musk’s tweets.
Unsworth’s case is among the last issues hanging over Musk from a turbulent 2018 and early 2019, when he regularly clashed with Wall Street and short sellers as Tesla struggled with production problems.
The Unsworth episode began after Musk offered a mini-submarine from his SpaceX rocket company to help with the cave rescue.