The opinion of the court was delivered by: GRIM
In this libel action plaintiff has a verdict in her favor in the sum of $ 50,000 against defendant, a newspaper publisher. Defendant's motion for judgment in its favor or in the alternative for a new trial presents the question now before the court.
A newspaper article in defendant's newspaper in reference to the death of plaintiff's daughter, who was a student at Barnard College in New York City, constitutes the alleged defamatory statement. The article is:
'Lincoln dean's daughter buried.
'Oxford, Pa. -- Mary J. MacRae, who died from gas poisoning, was buried Friday from Lincoln University where her father, James B. MacRae, is dean of students.
'Miss MacRae, 19, was found on Wednesday in New York City where she was residing for the summer. She was believed to have been despondent over her mediocre marks at Barnard College.
'It was rumored on the Lincoln campus that her mother, Mrs. Mary MacRae, was extremely displeased over her daughter's scholastic standing. Her father rated her as an 'acceptable student.'
'Mary Jane, it was also whispered, had been told not to come home unless she improved her grades. Mrs. MacRae was so grief stricken that she did not go to the cemetery.
'It has not been determined, however, whether Miss MacRae's death was suicide or accidental. A report from authorities is expected within a week or two, according to Lee R. Reynolds, Philadelphia undertaker, who was in charge.'
Defendant's first contention is that as a matter of law the article was not defamatory and that, therefore, the trial judge should not have submitted the case to the jury.
If the article was reasonably capable of a defamatory meaning it was the duty of the trial judge so to determine and then to submit the case to the jury to see whether the article had such a meaning in fact. Restatement, Torts, Sec. 614; Bausewine v. Norristown Herald, 1945, 351 Pa. 634, 643, 41 A.2d 736. The trial judge being of the opinion that the article was reasonably capable of a defamatory meaning submitted the case to the jury.
To determine the meaning of the article it must be read as a whole and each word must be read in the context of all the other words. Restatement, Torts, Sec. 563d. To determine the reasonable meaning of the article 'The test is the effect the article is fairly calculated to produce, the impression it would naturally engender, in the minds of the average persons among whom it is intended to circulate. The words must be given by judges and juries the same signification that other people are likely to attribute to them.' Boyer v. Pitt Publishing Co., 1936, 324 Pa. 154, 157, 188 A. 203, 204.
Looking at the article in this manner it can fairly be taken to mean that Mary J. MacRae died from gas poisoning, perhaps by suicide, while a student at Barnard College in New York City; that she was doing badly scholastically in college and was despondent about it; that she was also unhappy because her mother was extremely displeased over her poor marks and because someone, probably her mother, had told her not to come home unless her marks improved; that the suicide, if it was that, probably was caused by a combination of all of these things -- the poor marks, the mother's extreme displeasure, and the statement that Mary Jane should not come home unless her marks improved. In this interpretation the article means that the mother, the plaintiff in this case, was at least partly responsible for her daughter's death.
'A communication is defamatory if it tends so to harm the reputation of another as to lower him in the estimation of the community.' Restatement, Torts, Sec. 559. 'Words which produce any perceptible injury to the reputation of another are called 'defamatory'.' Collins v. Dispatch Publishing Co., 1893, 152 Pa. 187, 190, 25 A. 546, 547. 'A 'libel' is a * * * publication * * * tending either to blacken the memory of one who is dead, or the reputation of one who is alive, and expose him to public hatred contempt or ridicule.' Sarkees v. Warner-West Corp., 1944, 349 Pa. 365, 37 A.2d 544. Certainly a communication which suggests that a mother had some responsibility for her daughter's death would tend so to harm the reputation of the mother as to lower her in the estimation of the community and would tend to blacken her reputation and expose her to public contempt.
The averments in the article were described as 'rumors' and 'whispers' instead of facts. Using words like this, however, does not make a statement any less a libel. In a libel action a person is as much responsible for repeating defamatory statements, even though described as 'rumor' or 'whispers' as he would be for publishing ...