A British cave explorer on Monday sued Elon Musk for defamation, alleging that Musk made “unlawful, unsupportable and reprehensible accusations” when he called the man a pedophile on Twitter.
The explorer, Vernon Unsworth, filed the suit in federal court in Los Angeles. It asks for $75,000 in compensatory damages and an unspecified amount for punitive damages, and it says a second lawsuit will be filed in the United Kingdom for reputational damage suffered there.
“Mr. Unsworth brings this action to hold Musk legally accountable for his wrongdoing and to vindicate his reputation,” the suit said.
A representative for Musk said they had not yet seen the lawsuit and had no immediate comment.
Musk, chief executive of the automaker Tesla and the rocket company SpaceX, began attacking Unsworth in July after Unsworth criticized Musk’s attempt to assist in the rescue of a youth soccer team from a Thai cave. Unsworth was one of the divers who took part in the rescue effort.
Unsworth has been exploring caves since 1971 and has periodically visited Thailand since 2011, according to the lawsuit. He dives there and shares a house with his significant other, a 40-year-old owner of a nail salon, the suit says.
Though Musk apologized, he also appeared to goad Unsworth into filing the suit.
“You don’t think it’s strange he hasn’t sued me?” Musk wrote in reply to another Twitter user on Aug. 28.
Musk welcomed the threat of a lawsuit in an Aug. 30 email to BuzzFeed News, telling the news organization, “I f------ hope he sues me.”
The filing of the suit coincides with a scheduled announcement by SpaceX later on Monday, revealing the name of a person who has paid to travel around the moon.
The lawsuit says Unsworth is not a pedophile, has never raped anyone and is not a child sex-trafficker, and it says Musk’s comments otherwise “were published with actual malice,” a key factor in U.S. defamation law.
Unsworth has suffered emotional distress as a result of the accusations, the suit says.
“Elon Musk has practically been begging to be sued for libel on his claims,” said Chip Stewart, associate dean and professor of journalism at Texas Christian University, who focuses on law and digital media. “Now he'll get his day in court."
“It's not hard to imagine a jury finding presumed damages here,” Stewart said. “And if Unsworth can show malice, again not hard to imagine, probably punitive damages, too.”