As he sat stoically in court, Elon Musk on Friday was both vilified as a rich narcissist whose reckless behaviour risks “anarchy” and hailed as a visionary looking out for the “little guy”.
The contrasting portraits of the enigmatic billionaire came during closing arguments in a trial focused on whether Musk’s tweeting in 2018 misled Tesla shareholders, steering them in a direction that they argue cost them billions of dollars.
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The three-week trial has pitted Tesla investors represented in a class-action lawsuit against Musk, who is CEO of both the electric automaker and the Twitter service he bought for USD 44 billion a few months ago.
After three hours of arguments wrapped up Friday, a nine-person jury began its deliberations in the civil case centred on two tweets Musk posted August 7, 2018 about a Tesla buyout that never happened.
The first tweet, posted just before he boarded his private jet, Musk declared he had “funding secured” to take Tesla private. A few hours later, Musk sent another tweet indicating that the deal was imminent.
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The tweets caused Twitter’s stock to surge during a 10-day period covered by the lawsuit before falling back after Musk abandoned a deal in which he never had a firm financing commitment, based on evidence presented during the three-week trial.
Musk’s decision to show up for the closing arguments — even though his presence wasn’t required — underscores the importance of the trial’s outcome to him.
If the jurors decide the tweets duped investors, Musk and Tesla could be on the hook for billions of dollars in damages.
Nicholas Porritt, a lawyer for the Tesla shareholders, urged the jurors to rebuke Musk for his “loose relationship with the truth”.
“Our society is based on rules,” Porritt said. “We need rules to save us from anarchy. Rules should apply to Elon Musk like everyone else.”
Alex Spiro, Musk’s attorney, conceded the 2018 tweets were “technically inaccurate.” But he told the jurors, “Just because it’s a bad tweet doesn’t make it a fraud.”
US District Judge Edward Chen, who presided over the trial, decided last year that Musk’s 2018 tweets were false and has instructed the jury to view them that way.
During roughly eight hours on the stand earlier in the trial, Musk insisted he believed he had lined up the funds from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund to take Tesla private after eight years as a publicly held company. He defended his initial August 2018 tweet as well-intentioned and aimed at ensuring all Tesla investors knew the automaker might be on its way to ending its run as a publicly held company.
“I had no ill motive,” Musk testified. “My intent was to do the right thing for all shareholders.”
Spiro echoed that theme in his closing argument.
“He was trying to include the retail shareholder, the mom and pop, the little guy, and not seize more power for himself,” Spiro said.
Porritt, meanwhile, scoffed at the notion that Musk could have concluded he had a firm commitment after a 45-minute meeting at a Tesla factory on July 31, 2018, with Yasir al-Rumayyan, governor of Saudi Arabia’s wealth fund, given there was no written documentation.
A text message that al-Rumayyan sent later in August that is part of the trial evidence also indicated that the Saudi fund was only interested in learning more about Musk’s proposal to take Tesla private at a time the company was valued at about USD 60 billion.
“Apparently a USD 60 billion financing commitment was obtained and no one wrote down a single word,” Porritt said, while asserting that amount was larger than the combined economic output of Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador.
“Elon Musk apparently thinks it is easier to get billions of dollars in financing than an auto loan or a mortgage,” Pollitt added.
Spiro, though, pointed to Musk’s track record helping to start and run a list of companies that include digital payment pioneer PayPal and rocket ship maker SpaceX, in addition to Tesla.
The automaker based in Austin, Texas, is now worth nearly USD 600 billion, despite a steep decline in its stock price last year amid concerns that Musk’s purchase of Twitter would distract him from Tesla.
Recalling Musk’s roots as a South African immigrant who came to Silicon Valley to create revolutionary tech companies, Spiro described his client “as the kind of person who believes the impossible is possible.”
Porritt put a different twist on Musk’s mindset during his presentation. “To Elon Musk, if he believes it, or just thinks about it, it’s true.”
In his concluding remarks, Porritt told jurors their decision will boil down to their answer to one question: “Do the rules apply to everyone, or can Elon Musk do whatever he wants and not face the consequences?”