Musk dealt setback as Tesla critic’s smear trial nears

Elon Musk failed to persuade a judge to let him sue a data journalist for publishing an email by the Tesla Inc.

| Updated on: Jan 28 2023, 08:29 IST
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Musk dealt setback as Tesla critic’s smear trial nears. (REUTERS)

Elon Musk failed to persuade a judge to let him sue a data journalist for publishing an email by the Tesla Inc. CEO making allegations against an outspoken critic of the company who then sued the billionaire for defamation.

A state court judge in California tentatively ruled that allowing Musk to launch a countersuit would “not further the interest of justice” and likely delay — once again — a planned trial on Randeep Hothi's claim that he was harassed online after Musk smeared his reputation.

The setback for Musk comes as he is defending himself at a San Francisco trial in a lawsuit by Tesla investors alleging he defrauded them when he tweeted in 2018 about taking the company private.

Hothi, who frequently criticized Tesla on Twitter under the handle “@skabooshka” and became a hero to short sellers, drew Musk's wrath about four years ago after two incidents, both of which Hothi claims were harmless.

In the first, in February 2019, Hothi was confronted by security guards when he showed up — to do research, he says — at the Tesla sales center in Fremont, California. In the second, in April of that year, Hothi said he was driving when he spotted a Tesla test car and took photos of it, which he later posted online.

Musk complained about Hothi in an email to the founder of a website that publishes legal filings, Aaron Greenspan. Musk accused Hothi of actively harassing and “almost killing” Tesla employees, according to court filings. Greenspan subsequently posted his exchange with Musk on Twitter.

The Tesla CEO argued that Hothi's lawsuit was baseless and an attempt to stifle his free speech, but failed to persuade a state judge in Hayward or an appeals court to throw it out.

In December, after the defamation trial had already been postponed, Musk filed a countersuit that sought to drag Greenspan into the mix. Musk's lawyers argued that since it was Greenspan who posted the comments that allegedly defamed Hothi, he could also be held liable for damages.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Julia Spain rejected the argument. In her tentative ruling, she noted that the trial was a year behind schedule after Musk's unsuccessful appeal. It's now scheduled for late October.

Spain said that Musk is free to go after Greenspan in a separate lawsuit. Musk has until Friday to ask the judge to reconsider her ruling.

Musk and Greenspan have a history. In 2020, Greenspan sued Musk for defamation, claiming he'd been targeted in an organized online campaign by Tesla trolls. A federal judge tossed the suit, ruling that Greenspan had failed to show that the alleged trolls were acting as agents of Musk.

Lawrence Fossi, a lawyer for Hothi, praised Spain's tentative ruling, saying “the idea that Aaron Greenspan has liability here is ludicrous.”

Greenspan declined to comment on the ruling. A lawyer for Musk didn't immediately respond outside regular business hours to a request for comment.

The case is Hothi v. Musk, RG20069852, California Superior Court, Alameda County (Hayward).

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First Published Date: 28 Jan, 08:29 IST
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