Tech billionaire Elon Musk’s lawyers have argued that the Tesla CEO is viewed in a negative light by more than 80 percent of prospective jurors in San Francisco in an effort to get his upcoming trial against a group of Tesla shareholders moved out of the state.
Lawyers for Musk argued in court documents that questionnaires, which are not publicly available, completed by nearly 200 prospective jurors in San Francisco showed that 82 percent of them have a negative opinion of Musk, Bloomberg reported.
Only two or three of the potential jurors acknowledged knowing someone who works at Twitter, The Associated Press reported.
This, his lawyers said, reinforced the fact that the Northern California jury pool for the trial “is biased against Mr. Musk,” much of which they said stems from his “use of and honesty on Twitter.”
In previous court documents (pdf) filed in the California court on Jan. 6, lawyers for Musk stated that local media have “saturated” the district with “biased and negative stories” about Musk for the past several months, which they fear could sway the jury.
“Prejudice can be presumed in this case,” Musk’s lawyers wrote. “Over the past several months, the potential jury pool in the Northern District has been ‘exposed to excessive and adverse pretrial publicity’ concerning Mr. Musk” which could potentially deprive him of an impartial jury and his constitutional right to a fair trial.
Potential Juror Bias Against Musk Regarding Twitter
According to Musk’s lawyers, the negative press has “fostered two distinct and highly prejudicial biases in the jury pool: (1) a bias concerning one of the key issues in this case: Mr. Musk’s use of Twitter and (2) a personal and material bias against Mr. Musk by potential jurors who have been impacted by recent business decisions and staff reductions.”
Lawyers also cited negative attention from local politicians in San Francisco, including its mayor, who they said has participated in protests against Musk.
While the lawyers noted that Musk has been a public figure for more than a decade and recognizes that being the subject of negative and even unfair media attention comes with the territory, they proposed that the court move the trial to the Western District of Texas.
Tesla moved its headquarters to Texas in 2021.
Despite insistence from Musk’s lawyers that the trial be moved out of San Francisco, federal judge Edward Chen on Friday rejected the claims that the jury pool is biased against Musk, asserting that a judge was able to assemble an unbiased jury for the criminal trial of failed Theranos Inc. founder Elizabeth Holmes, Bloomberg reports.
Judge Draws Comparisons to Elizabeth Holmes
Holmes was sentenced in November to 11 years and three months in prison after she was found guilty of defrauding investors in the blood testing startup of millions of dollars. Similar to Musk, lawyers for Holmes had argued that their client had received too much negative press that could influence the jury.
Musk, whose trial is scheduled to begin on Jan. 17, has been accused by Tesla shareholders of fraudulently inflating Tesla stock and making false and misleading statements in an Aug. 7, 2018, tweet in which he stated: “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.”
The deal, however, never materialized and shareholders claim they lost billions of dollars after Tesla’s stock price became volatile.
Musk was later forced to pay a $40 million settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission over the tweets.
Judge Chen has already determined that Musk’s buyout tweet was false, meaning the jury must now decide if the businessman acted recklessly by posting it and whether it caused financial harm to Tesla shareholders.
Musk has stated that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund had agreed to support his attempt to take Tesla private, meaning his 2018 tweet was true. He and his company have said the statements did not violate the law.
“Going back almost two years, the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund has approached me multiple times about taking Tesla private,” Musk stated in an Aug. 13, 2018, blog post. “Obviously, the Saudi sovereign fund has more than enough capital needed to execute on such a transaction,” he added.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.