Parents Say Story on Dead Son Defamed Them

     DALLAS (CN) – Parents of a teenager who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, apparently while in pain from an auto accident, sued the Dallas Morning News, claiming its columnist Steve Blow falsely accused them of covering up their son’s nonexistent mental illness – in the family’s paid obituary in the Morning News.

     John and Mary Ann Tatum say their 17-year-old son Paul “had absolutely no history of mental illness or depression.” He suffered disorienting head injuries in a one-car accident on the night of May 17, 2010, “wandered from the crash site and ultimately made his way home,” where he drank champagne to ease his pain, and while “dazed, confused, irrational, incoherent and apparently in physical anguish,” shot himself as a result of head trauma after a car crash. They sued columnist Steve Blow and The Dallas Morning News in Dallas County Court.
     Paul Tatum died in May 2010, after being involved in a car accident while his parents were out of town. Despite his severe injuries, Paul made his way home from the crash site. Tipped off by Paul’s incoherent text messages and calls, one of Paul’s friends drove to the Tatums’ house with her mother to check on Paul. She found Paul “dazed, confused, irrational, incoherent, and apparently in physical anguish,” and while he was alone in a room, Paul shot himself in the head, according to the complaint in Dallas County Court.
     His mother, Mary Ann Tatum, who describes herself as “a well-known Dallas mental health professional,” says her son “has absolutely no history of mental illness or depression.”
     Nonetheless, she says, after her son’s funeral, which was attended by more than 1,000 people, Blow wrote a column taking the family to task for the obituary they paid the Morning News to publish.
     The Tatums wrote in their son’s obituary that he died “as a result of injuries sustained in an automobile accident.”
     But a month after the obituary was published – on Father’s Day, no less – the Morning News published Blow’s column on what he perceived as “the ‘problem’ of people refusing to openly discuss suicide,” according to the complaint.
     The Tatums say Blow’s column “quote(d) verbatim from Paul’s obituary, reciting the phrase from the obituary that ‘a popular local high school student died “as a result of injuries sustained in an automobile accident.”‘ Shockingly, Blow follows this quotation by claiming that plaintiffs were lying and that the car crash had nothing to do with Paul’s death. Instead, Blow makes the false factual assertion that Paul committed suicide in a ‘time of remorse’ over the accident. This false factual assertion has absolutely no support whatsoever.”
     The column ran under the headline, “Shrouding Suicide in Secrecy Leaves its Danger Unaddressed.” The Tatums add: “Blow has a knack for seeking out and finding controversy and has been the subject of repeated criticism and litigation from those he targets with his columns.”
     They say that Blow “took no steps to investigate whether Paul had a history of mental illness. Blow fashions himself as a self-styled expert on suicide and mental health and apparently concludes that anyone who causes their own death – whatever the surrounding circumstanced might be – must also suffer from untreated mental illness. This is not only demonstrably false, but also underscores defendants’ reckless disregard for the truth in publishing the article.
     “Moreover, defendant Blow wrote the defamatory article with knowledge and intent to disparage plaintiff Mary Ann Tatum’s mental health practice. Blow was well aware of who Paul Tatum’s mother was when he published the article. In the 1990s, Blow had reviewed a book authored by plaintiff Mary Ann Tatum. In publishing the defamatory article, defendants took a shot not only at plaintiff’s reputations but also at Mary Ann Tatum’s professional integrity and competence. Defendants succeeded. Mary Ann Tatum has had her speaking invitations cut off and her new patient referrals have dwindled since the defamatory article was published.”
     The Tatums claim that Blow “insinuate(s) through the article that Paul was mentally ill and that plaintiffs, his parents, had been oblivious to this fact before his death and in denial of it after his death. Blow then tops off his disgusting attack on the Tatum family by suggesting that the plaintiffs were somehow responsible for Paul’s death by failing to come to terms with his alleged mental illness and that plaintiffs had done a disservice to others by failing to use Paul’s obituary as a platform to educate the world about mental illness and suicide.”
     The column did not mention the Tatums by name, but the parents say that “anyone who plugged in the quotation on an Internet search engine of on the Dallas Morning News’ website would immediately discover the quote was from Paul’s obituary.”
     Finally, the Tatums say, when they “took their concerns to the editor and publisher” of the Morning News, “the editor and publisher brushed off plaintiffs and told them they could talk to the newspaper’s lawyers, without even so much as an apology.”
     The Tatums seek punitive damages for defamation and business disparagement.
     They are represented by Joe Sibley with Camara & Sibley of Houston.

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