- Vernon Unsworth, a British diver involved in rescuing 12 Thai boys trapped in a cave in July, is suing Tesla CEO Elon Musk for defamation.
- Unsworth has filed a lawsuit in California, and also plans to file a claim in the UK’s High Court.
- That’s bad news for Musk, because the UK has strict libel law where the onus is on defendants to prove that what they have said is true.
- Unsworth has appointed Mark Stephens, a scuba diver and renowned media lawyer, to represent him in the UK.
Vernon Unsworth, the British cave diver suing Elon Musk for defamation, not only plans to pursue the tech mogul in the US but will also file a lawsuit in the UK.
According to documents filed at California’s District Court, reviewed by Business Insider, Unsworth claims that Musk has damaged his reputation with “false and baseless” claims over email and Twitter. Musk has said, without providing evidence, that Unsworth is a “pedo” and married a 12-year-old child bride in Thailand.
According to the lawsuit, Unsworth is seeking $US75,000 (£57,000), plus punitive damages, and he has denied all of Musk’s claims.
The documents state that Unsworth will also file a claim against Musk in the UK’s High Court. The diver is represented by L. Lin Wood in the US, and renowned media lawyer Mark Stephens of Howard Kennedy in the UK.
Stephens, a fellow diver, told Business Insider late on Monday that Unsworth and his legal team were focused on the US suit for the time being. He refused to comment on the status of the UK suit.
Pursuing Musk in the UK could be a smart move
Filing a suit in the UK would be a smart move. Britain has strict libel laws, and the burden of proof is placed on the defendant, rather than the claimant.
Put simply, that means Elon Musk would be asked to provide evidence for his claims against Unsworth. He has so far not demonstrated that he has any basis for calling Unsworth a “pedo.”
Here’s what Musk wrote in an expletive-laden email to BuzzFeed earlier this month, without providing evidence:
“I suggest that you call people you know in Thailand, find out what’s actually going on and stop defending child rapists, you fucking arsehole. He’s an old, single white guy from England who’s been travelling to or living in Thailand for 30 to 40 years, mostly Pattaya Beach, until moving to Chiang Rai for a child bride who was about 12 years old at the time.”
Unsworth’s lawsuit denies that he has ever visited Pattaya Beach, and states that he has a girlfriend, 40-year-old nail salon owner Woranan Ratrawiphukkun. The pair live in a house near Chiang Rai, in northern Thailand.
The UK’s libel laws also tend to favour individuals (rather than companies) who have been defamed, and there’s an increase in the number of defamation suits relating to comments that are made on social media.
An obvious parallel is the High Court’s 2013 ruling that one individual, Sally Bercow, defamed a Conservative peer by falsely suggesting he was a paedophile on Twitter. Bercow settled out of court, and news outlets that ran similar reports had to fork out £310,000 ($US407,000) in damages.
The US, by contrast, leans towards defending people’s right to free speech. When it comes to defamation suits, plaintiffs have to prove “negligence.” Put more simply, Unsworth would have to prove that Musk didn’t act with care in publishing his comments.
Mark Stephens, the lawyer representing Unsworth, is usually on the other side of the table in defamation suits. At one time, he represented Wikileaks founder Julian Assange during extradition hearings, and he has generally argued against British defamation law becoming stricter.
In an email to Business Insider, Stephens said: “These Twibels [Twitter libels] show that falsehoods by the rich and powerful can circulate round the globe to their 22.5 million followers and to the media before the truth can pull its boots on.
“The truth has now got its boots on and Elon Musk is being brought to account for repeatedly attacking and taunting the good name of an ordinary spelunker: Vernon Unsworth who answered the call and (with others) put his life on the line to help rescue the 13 trapped in the caves in Thailand.
“I still carry the light of hope that Mr Musk will withdraw his baseless allegations and properly vindicate Mr Unsworth.”
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