Elon Musk was depicted Wednesday as either a liar who callously jeopardized the savings of “regular people” or a well-intentioned visionary as attorneys delivered opening statements at a trial focused on a Tesla buyout that never happened.
Lawyers on opposing sides drew the starkly different portraits of Musk for a nine-person jury that will hear the three-week trial. The case is focused on two August 2018 tweets that the billionaire posted on Twitter, which he now owns.
The tweets indicated that Musk had lined up the financing to take Tesla private at a time when the automaker’s stock was slumping amid production problems.
The prospect of a $72 billion buyout fueled a rally in the company’s stock price that abruptly ended a week later after it became apparent that he did not have the funding to pull off the deal after all. Tesla shareholders then sued him, saying that Tesla shares would not have swung so widely in value if he had not dangled the idea of buying the company for $420 per share.
Nicholas Porritt, a lawyer representing Glen Littleton and other Tesla shareholders in the class-action case, promptly vilified Musk as he addressed jurors. He also asserted that Musk’s tweet also hurt pension funds and other organizations that owned Tesla stock at the time.
Musk’s lawyer, Alex Spiro, countered that the run-up in Tesla’s stock after the tweet mostly reflected investors’ belief in Musk’s ability to pull off stunning feats, including building the world’s largest electric automaker while also running SpaceX, a maker of rocket ships.
Spiro added that Musk had been in advanced talks with representatives from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund to take Tesla private.
Littleton, a 71-year-old investor from Kansas City, Missouri, was the first witness called to the stand. He said Musk’s claim about the financing alarmed him because he had purchased Tesla investments designed to reward him for his belief that the automaker’s stock would eventually be worth far more than the $420.
Musk’s 2018 tweets attracted the attention of securities regulators, who concluded that they were improper and that he was lying. In a settlement, they forced him to pay $40 million and required him to step down as Tesla chairman.
US District Judge Edward Chen, who is presiding over the trial, ruled that the shareholders’ lawyers can’t mention that settlement in the case.
But Chen has already ruled that Musk’s tweet was false, a finding that can be alluded to during the trial without specifically mentioning the determination made by the judge.
Pollitt seized on that opportunity during his opening statement, informing jurors that they are to assume Musk’s tweet was false, as the judge allowed. Spiro shook his head as he listened.
The trial’s outcome may turn on the jury’s interpretation of Musk’s motive for the tweets. And Musk will have his chance to make his case to the jury.
After the trial adjourned Wednesday, Porritt told The Associated Press he hopes to call Musk to the stand when the proceedings resume Friday after two other witnesses testify. If the allotted time runs out Friday, Musk will likely testify Monday, Porritt said.
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