The shareholder case against Tesla CEO Elon Musk got off to a slow start on Tuesday, as potential jurors who variously described the controversial tech billionaire as “narcissistic”, “unpredictable”, “a little off his rocker”, “a genius” and “another arrogant rich guy” were questioned about their impartiality by the judge.
But, by the end of the day, nine jurors had been selected to sit on the jury for the San Francisco trial, which hinges on whether Musk cheated investors of “billions” by asserting in 2018 tweets that he had “secured” financing to take the electric automaker private.
Opening arguments will begin on Wednesday.
The lawsuit seeks damages for shareholders who bought or sold Tesla stock in the days after Musk’s tweets on 7 August 2018. The shareholders have not specified the damages, but said Musk’s tweets cost investors “billions”.
Musk’s 2018 tweets 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 for a buyout after all. Investors then sued him, saying that Tesla shares would not have swung so widely in value if he had not dangled the prospect of buying the company for $420 a share.
Musk’s tweet also attracted the attention of securities regulators, who concluded that it was 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.
Since then, Musk has become even more controversial with his purchase of Twitter and the subsequent revamping of the social media site’s posting rules, shutdown of its headquarters and dismissals of many of its employees.
Musk’s attorneys argued that his handling of Twitter had made him so infamous in Twitter’s hometown of San Francisco that he couldn’t get a fair jury there.
But US district court judge Edward Chen denied Musk’s request to move the trial to Texas and, instead, he and lawyers for both sides grilled those jurors who had expressed the strongest opinions about Musk in a pre-trial questionnaire.
“I think he’s a little off his rocker, on a personal level,” said one juror, referring to Musk’s management of Twitter, which he took over in October.
That potential juror and others said they could set their views aside and judge the case impartially if selected.
Panelists were asked ahead of time about their opinions of Musk and whether they own a Tesla vehicle.
“I truly believe you can’t judge a person until you walk in their shoes,” said another potential juror, who had said Musk seemed “narcissistic”.
Musk, who may end up providing testimony in the trial, maintains that he believed he had locked up financial backing for the buyout during meetings with representatives from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.
The trial’s outcome may turn on the jury’s interpretation of Musk’s motive for the tweets, which Chen has already decided were false.