British caver 'still a hero' and should have won against Elon Musk, friends say

Yohannes Lowe
Vernon Unsworth takes questions from the media outside of the courthouse in Los Angeles, California - REX

A British caver who last year helped in the rescue of a Thai football team remains “a hero” and should have won his libel case against the “publicity-seeking” Elon Musk, his friends and fellow rescuers have said. 

Vernon Unsworth sought £145m in damages from the Tesla founder, arguing in court that his “defamatory” tweet calling him a “pedo guy” after the rescue of the 12 boys and their football coach damaged his reputation.

However, a Los Angeles court on Friday unanimously ruled in favour of Mr Musk, worth an estimated £18 billion, as the judge said that the comments did not meet the legal standard for defamation.

The pair became embroiled in a row after Mr Unsworth, an experienced cave explorer, branded Mr Musk's offer of a small submarine to help with the rescue effort a “PR stunt”.

Mr Musk responded by tweeting to his 22.5 million followers: “sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it” , before deleting it off his account.

Tim Acton, part of the British diving supply team who brought oxygen tanks to the football team in June 2018, yesterday  told The Telegraph that Mr Musk's proposal did in fact amount to a “publicity stunt”.

“Musk was trying to send a glorified scuba tank that probably would not have been able to go through the ceiling anyway,”   he said. 

“The feeling among many of the rescuers and volunteers was that he was getting involved as part of a publicity stunt.”

Elon Musk attends the closing arguments of his trial in the defamation case  Credit: Mona Shafer Edwards/Reuters

Tim's father, John Acton, from Essex, said that Mr Unsworth will always remain a “hero” because of his vital contribution to the 17-day rescue effort, which relied on his intricate knowledge of the Tham Luang caving system.

Mr Unsworth was instrumental in the dangerous final three-day mission, in which retired Thai Navy Seal Sgt. Major Saman Gunan, 38, died as he tried to save the children trapped below ground by rapidly rising floodwaters after football practice.

Mr Acton, 72, said: “I think the comments were the wrong thing to say. Unless you have evidence of something like that you should just keep your mouth shut. Vernon knew that cave inside out- and that a submarine would not work with the bends. He was just telling the truth and Musk got the hump and called him names. I thought that Vernon would have won the case because it is an insult. In the UK he probably stood a better chance of winning. I think the comments were damaging to his reputation and he had all the right to sue him.

“It was Vernon's knowledge of the cave that meant that the divers were able to rescue the children. Without this, the rescue would not have happened. He is definitely a hero in my eyes, along with the rest of the divers. Elon Musk was only in it for the publicity and the ego.”  

Following the verdict, which took under an hour to decide, Mr Musk, 48, told reporters in the hallways of the federal courtroom in California that his “faith in humanity” was “restored”.

Alex Spiro, his lawyer, successfully argued that no reasonable person ever believed that his client had actually accused Mr Unsworth, 64, of “a sexual act with a child”, adding that the contentious tweet had been a “jape”.

Mr Musk said that in South Africa, where he grew up, “pedo” is commonly used to refer to a “creepy old man”.

Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Tesla Inc. leaves the US District Court through a back door  Credit: Getty Images North America/Apu Gomes

The jury rejected the closing arguments of Mr Unsworth's legal team, who depicted Mr Musk as a “billionaire bully” and serial liar who dropped a “nuclear bomb” on their client by making an unfounded allegation.

In emotional testimony this week, he told the court that he felt “humiliated, ashamed, dirtied” by the tweets sent about him.

He said he would respect the verdict and will “take it on the chin”. Speaking after the verdict, Mr Unsworth said: “I respect the jury's decision. I would just like to say my legal team have been absolutely awesome. I came here for a verdict, unfortunately it has not gone the way I expected but I respect the jury's decision and thank them for that.”