Friday, 12 February 2016 11:00
This case arises out of a sad set of facts. A healthy, popular, athletic 16 year old boy who had no history of mental illness was involved in a car accident. After he made it home from the accident, he began consuming alcohol. A concerned friend went to the home of the boy’s parents to find the son dazed, confused, irrational and incoherent. The son then shot himself in the head.
The parents wrote an obituary for their son and paid the Dallas Morning News to publish it. The parents believed the suicide was caused by a brain injury their son sustained in the car accident, and stated in the obituary he died as a result of injuries sustained in an automobile accident.
Approximately one month later, the newspaper published an article that the parents accused them of lying of the cause about their son’s death, falsely stated their son committed suicide in a “time of remorse” over the accident, insinuated the son was mentally ill, suggested the parents were responsible for their son’s death, and suggested they had done a disservice to others by failing to educate the world about mental illness and suicide.
Unnamed parents fight back
The parents sued the newspaper alleging libel. The newspaper filed a summary judgment motion and the court found in favor of the Dallas Morning News. The parents appealed. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision concerning the parents’ libel claims and sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.
Defamation comes in two forms, slander and libel. Slander is oral defamation, and libel is defamation expressed in written or other graphic form. Because the parents are private individuals and not public officials or figures, the elements of defamation are (1) defendant published a statement, (2) the statement was defamatory concerning the plaintiff, and (3) the defendant acted with negligence regarding the statement’s truth. Defamation must be a statement of verifiable fact rather than simply an opinion.
The Dallas Morning News argued that the article was not “of and concerning” the parents. While an article does not need to use the plaintiff’s name, if people who know and are acquainted with the plaintiff reasonably understand from reading the statement that it referred to the plaintiff, then it is.
Here, the parents’ names were not used but the article referred to a popular local high school student who died as a result of injuries sustained in an automobile accident. Based on the evidence submitted by the parents that multiple people called them after the article was published, the court held a reasonable person could find that people who knew the parents would reasonably understand the article referred to them.
Reader perception matters
The parents argued that the article is capable of defaming them because readers could perceive it to accuse them of committing deception by making up a connection between their son’s death and his car accident, suggested he suffered a mental illness and they ignored it and if they staged a timely intervention they could have saved his life. The court agreed with the parents on all three points.
To prove negligence, two elements must be established (1) the publisher knew or could have known the defamatory statement was false and (2) the factual misstatement’s content was such that it would arm a reasonably prudent editor or broadcaster of its defamatory potential. The court found the author of the article did not contact the parents to determine the basis for their choice of words in their son’s obituary.
Moreover, there was also evidence that supported the parents’ good faith belief that their son’s car accident did cause the death. As a result, the appellate court agreed with the parents and held the trial court erred by granting summary judgment on their libel claims.