Billionaire revenge lawsuits: Why Elon Musk is funding Gina Carano's Disney case

The Mandalorian actress is seeking $75,000 in damages in a dispute being backed the owner of X

Actress Gina Carano's lawsuit against Disney and LucasFilm is being funded by Elon Musk. AP / EPA
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The news that Elon Musk is funding The Mandalorian actress Gina Carano’s discrimination and wrongful termination lawsuit against Disney and Lucasfilm has put the ethics of the murky world of litigation finance in the spotlight.

Former MMA fighter Carano was fired from her role as Cara Dune in hit Star Wars spin-off show in 2021, following a post she made on X, formerly Twitter, which appeared to imply that discrimination of supporters of the US Republican party was akin to the treatment of Jewish people in Nazi Germany.

Lucasfilm, the production company behind The Mandalorian said at the time “her social media posts denigrating people based on their cultural and religious identities are abhorrent and unacceptable”.

On Tuesday, Carano filed a complaint in a California federal court, alleging she was fired for voicing right-wing and conservative opinions on social media, and was “harassed and defamed” for her views.

“My words were consistently twisted to demonise and dehumanise me as an alt right-wing extremist,” she wrote on X. “It was a bullying smear campaign aimed at silencing, destroying and making an example out of me.”

The lawsuit also alleges that Disney and Lucasfilm used “bullying, discriminatory and retaliatory actions”.

Carano’s lawsuit, in which she is seeking $75,000 in damages and a demand to be reinstated on the show, is being backed and funded by X and Tesla owner Musk.

“A couple months ago Elon Musk tweeted that if you had been fired from using the platform for exercising your right to free speech, he would like to offer these people legal representation,” Carano wrote on the platform. “Quite the noble offer, but never in my wildest dreams would I have thought anyone would take on my case against Lucasfilm/Disney.”

Why is Elon Musk involved in Gina Carano’s lawsuit?

Since he acquired X in 2022, Musk has been vocal about his support for “freedom of speech”, using his social media platform to rail against perceived infringements.

Last year, the billionaire became increasingly irate after the White House highlighted what it called “anti-Semitic and racist hate” on X.

“Twitter has had a massive drop in revenue, due to activist groups pressuring advertisers, even though nothing has changed with content moderation and we did everything we could to appease the activists,” he tweeted. “Extremely messed up! They’re trying to destroy free speech in America.”

In November, he told attendees at the DealBook Summit in New York: "I have no problem being hated. Hate away.”

Calling himself a “free speech absolutist” last year, Musk offered “no limits” funding for X users who believed they had been discriminated against for what they post on the platform. He also wrote that he would “go after the boards of directors of the companies too”.

Things came to a head when a number of prominent brands including Disney halted their advertising on X in November following Musk's public support for an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory favoured by White supremacists.

Musk did not hide his displeasure at the entertainment giant, even asking for chief executive Bob Iger to be fired. “Walt Disney is turning in his grave over what Bob has done to his company," he posted.

X’s head of business operations Joe Benarroch said supporting Carano's lawsuit was "a sign of X Corp's commitment to free speech".

Carano said she messaged X to take up her cause and was later contacted by a lawyer who has taken on her case, funded by Musk.

She posted: “I am honoured that my case has been chosen to be supported by the company that has been one of the last glimmers of hope for free speech in the world.”

Hulk Hogan’s secret billionaire backer

With Disney worth an estimated $182 billion and Musk $194 billion, the legal battle appears equal from a financial and power-balance perspective.

Musk’s involvement has highlighted what those with deep pockets can achieve when taking on others without access to similar funds.

One of the most famous cases of what is known as litigation finance or “champerty” (from the French, Champart, a tax once levied on tenants by landowners) involved billionaire PayPal founder Peter Thiel.

In 2016, Thiel told The New York Times that he had secretly paid legal expenses amounting to $10 million to fund several lawsuits, none of them his own, against New York-based media company, Gawker Media.

One involved wrestler Hulk Hogan, real name Terry Bollea, who in 2013 sued Gawker Media for invasion of privacy after it had published parts of an intimate tape Hogan made with his best friend’s wife Heather Clem.

With Thiel bearing the brunt of the legal costs, Hogan won the case in 2016 and was awarded $140 million in damages. The decision bankrupted Gawker, causing it to shut down.

Thiel’s identity as Hogan’s financial backer was kept under wraps throughout the case but the entrepreneur later told The New York Times: “It’s less about revenge and more about specific deterrence.”

The admission led one X user to note: “Peter Thiel just invented revenge litigation finance.”

After the $140 million ruling, Gawker Media founder Nick Denton called Thiel’s involvement a “vindictive decade-long campaign” that “is quite out of proportion to the hurt you claim”. It was a reference to a 2007 story posted on Gawker’s blog that discussed Thiel’s sexuality.

Josh Marshall, founder of the political website Talking Points Memo, wrote of the case: “You may not like Gawker … but if the extremely wealthy, under a veil secrecy, can destroy publications they want to silence, that’s a far bigger threat to freedom of the press than most of the things we commonly worry about on that front.”

'A chilling indicator'

The process by which anonymous donors can fund another person’s legal dispute, champerty, is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “a proceeding by which a person not a party in a suit bargains to aid in or carry on its prosecution or defence in consideration of a share of the matter in suit”.

Billionaires have long butted heads with the media and thanks to their wealth can afford to wage lengthy legal campaigns.

In 2015, the political website Mother Jones gave details of its years-long defamation battle with US entrepreneur and Republican party donor Frank VanderSloot.

“What we do know is that the take-no-prisoners legal assault from VanderSloot and Melaleuca has consumed a good part of the past two and a half years and has cost millions (yes, millions) in legal fees,” it wrote.

“But make no mistake: this was not a dispute over a few words. It was a push, by a super-rich businessman and donor to wipe out news coverage that he disapproved of. Had he been successful, it would have been a chilling indicator that the 0.01 per cent can control not only the financing of political campaigns, but also media coverage of those campaigns.”

Updated: February 08, 2024, 6:47 AM