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Libel Claim Revived Against Dallas Paper

(CN) - A Texas couple can continue to pursue their claim that the Dallas Morning News libeled them in an article about their son's suicide, a state appeals court ruled.

John and Mary Ann Tatum sued the newspaper and reporter Steve Blow for a column entitled, "Shrouding suicide leaves its danger unaddressed."

Blow did not mention the Tatums by name in the article, but he described the circumstances around Paul Tatum's death and quoted his obituary.

Paul was 17 years old, a popular student and accomplished athlete. He did not have a history of mental illness.

While his parents were out of town, Paul was involved in a one-car accident and began sending his friends incoherent text messages.

Paul's friend arrived at the Tatum household and found him dazed and confused. Paul was also holding one of the family's firearms.

When the friend left to tell his mother what was happening, she heard a gunshot.

The Tatum family wrote an obituary and paid for its publication in the Dallas Morning News. According to the family, Paul died "as a result of injuries sustained in an automobile accident."

Blow's column appeared one month later, on Father's Day. The Tatums claim in their lawsuit that the article accused them of lying about Paul's death.

They also maintain that the article suggested that they were responsible for Paul's death and that Paul was mentally ill.

Blow wrote, "There was a car crash all right, but death came from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a time of remorse afterward."

He applauded the efforts of a Dallas woman named Julie Hersh, who urged family members to be open about suicide when writing obituaries.

Blow added, "Averting our eyes from the reality of suicide only puts more lives at risk. Awareness, frank discussion, timely intervention, treatment - those are the things that save lives. Honesty is the first step."

The trial court granted a summary judgment to the newspaper on the Tatums' claims of libel and violations of the Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

The Fifth District Texas Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's ruling on the Deceptive Trade Practices Act claim, but reversed the decision on the libel claim on Dec. 30.

Justice Bill Whitehill noted that the Tatums presented affidavits from a friend and their minister, stating that they contacted the family about the article, understanding it to refer to Paul's death.

"And, in his deposition, Blow testified that he thought people who knew both what the obituary said and that Paul shot himself would recognize the reference in his column," Whitehill wrote.

He also stated that the Tatums showed the article was capable of a defamatory meaning.

"A person of ordinary intelligence could read the column to accuse the Tatums of deception about the cause of Paul's death, and a statement is defamatory if it impeaches a person's honesty or integrity," he wrote.

Whitehill also noted that the latter part of the article discusses teen suicide and mental illness.

"By juxtaposing Paul's story with this discussion, the column invites the reader to associate Paul's suicide with mental illness and the Tatums who do not engage in life-saving 'frank discussion' and 'timely intervention,'" Whitehill wrote.

In addition, Whitehill stated that Blow did not "adhere to his usual practice of investigation" while working on his column by failing to contact the Tatums.

"Blow explained that he acted differently in investigating his column because he had been told that Paul's family did not want to discuss the matter," he wrote. "But John and Mary Ann Tatum testified by affidavit that they never told anyone that they do not want to speak with the media."

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