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decided: November 28, 1967.


Appeal from judgment of Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Oct. T., 1966, No. 2635, in case of Phyllis T. Kernick v. Dardanell Press, Robert V. McCarthy, Charles Williams et al.


William J. Tarter, for appellant.

Ivan E. Birsic, with him Cauley, Birsic & Clarke, for appellees.

Herbert Grigsby, with him Pringle, Bredin, Thomson, Rhodes & Grigsby, for appellees.

Bell, C. J., Musmanno, Jones, Cohen, Eagen, O'Brien and Roberts, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Justice Musmanno. Mr. Justice Eagen and Mr. Justice O'Brien concur in the result. Concurring Opinion by Mr. Justice Roberts.

Author: Musmanno

[ 428 Pa. Page 290]

The plaintiff in this case brought a suit in trespass charging the defendant, Dardanell Press, and others, with libel. The defendants filed preliminary objections which were sustained by the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, and the plaintiff appealed.

The plaintiff, Mrs. Phyllis T. Kernick, is the elected auditor of the township of Penn Hills, and functions as such. It appears that some time in April, 1966, Mrs. Kernick had a conversation with one of the township commissioners, George Taylor, III, who allegedly said to Mrs. Kernick that the commissioners would build a road into her property if she went "easy on the audit." At a meeting of the commissioners on June 7, 1966, Mrs. Kernick referred to this asserted conversation. At a subsequent meeting of the commissioners on July 11, 1966, Mrs. Kernick again commented on the colloquy with Taylor who now explained that whatever he had said to Mrs. Kernick was spoken in jest.

Nevertheless, three of the board of commissioners, Charles Williams, Alfred C. Ireland and Wm. Tobay, asked the District Attorney of Allegheny County to investigate into Mrs. Kernick's charges to ascertain if Commissioner Taylor had conducted himself in such fashion as to warrant initiation of criminal prosecution. The district attorney, after an appropriate investigation, reported that he found nothing to justify criminal proceedings against Taylor.

On August 23, 1966, the three named commissioners issued a statement stating that Mrs. Kernick had "failed to substantiate her outrageous accusation." They said further that her remarks had "carefully calculated to disparage the Township and its officials," that her utterances cost the taxpayers money in order to conduct an investigation of her charges, "even though

[ 428 Pa. Page 291]

    they consistently turn out to be baseless," that her "peculiar actions in suppressing the facts" were unexplained, that she owed the township "an explanation of her actions," and that finally, "we hope that in the future Mrs. Kernick will conduct herself in a manner befitting an elected public official."

A newspaper entitled "The Progress" and published by the Dardanell Press, printed the commissioners' statement, as well as a story on the district attorney's investigation. The plaintiff felt herself injured and brought suit in libel against the owners of the newspapers, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, and the three named commissioners. As already stated, the court of common pleas sustained the preliminary objections filed by the defendants, declaring that the plaintiff had failed to state a cause of action.

It appears that Mrs. Kernick did not know of former President Harry S. Truman's oft-quoted remark that "If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen." The statement issued by the commissioners may have caused the political pot to boil in Penn Hills township, but it is not apparent that it boiled at such temperature that it blew off the top and scalded Mrs. Kernick, or even burned her to any traumatic extent. The person who is the target of unkind words is bound to feel hurt, but he or she often exaggerates in his or her mind the extent of the damage done to his or her reputation in the public mind. The public has many things to think and talk about, and it does not linger on a debate which may occur at a township commissioners' meeting or on a statement issued by commissioners in the heat of an altercation.

Whatever sensation the commissioners' statement may have caused could not have endured for any appreciable period. It could be compared to the ripples in the water caused by the passing of a rowboat, which rippling quickly tranquilizes after ...

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