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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Ind. Decisions - "Judge rules public can't access cause of death records"

The ILB has had a number of entries about a dispute in Vanderburgh County over access to cause of death information. Today Mark Wilson of the Evansville Courier & Press reports in a long story that begins:

EVANSVILLE — A judge has ruled the Vanderburgh County Health Department does not have to provide information regarding a person’s causes of death to the general public.

In making his ruling, Senior Judge Carl Heldt addressed contradicting state laws that govern who maintains the information and who can have access to it.

The lawsuit in Vanderburgh Circuit Court was filed by Pike County resident Rita Ward and the Evansville Courier & Press, who were seeking access to cause of death information denied to them in separate requests in June and July 2012.

Courier & Press Editor Tim Ethridge said the newspaper is considering its options on whether to appeal the ruling.

The newspaper and Ward had argued the death certificates are public records, while the health department interprets state law to require it to restrict access to the information. The Courier & Press had published causes of death on its Sunday public records page from 2002 until May 2012 when the health department abruptly stopped including death causes in the information it provided to the newspaper.

Heldt’s ruling contradicts a July opinion by Public Access Counselor Joseph Hoage. The access counselor said a state law that became effective in January 2011 says people must show they have a direct interest to get cause of death information only applied to the state’s death registration system. Hoage’s opinion was that another Indiana law still required local health departments to keep records of the death certificates filed by physicians and make them available to the public.

That law, Indiana Code 16-37-3-3, says, “The person in charge of interment shall file a certificate of death or of stillbirth with the local health officer of the jurisdiction in which the death or stillbirth occurred.” The law also says, “The local health officer shall retain a copy of the certificate of death.”

The county contends a different law, Indiana Code 16-37-1-10, says access to records with the cause of death information is restricted to only those who can prove they have a direct interest in it, such as a spouse or immediate relative who may need it for legal purposes.

In his decision, Heldt acknowledged that the laws conflicted but he said that in cases when conflicting laws can’t be reconciled that the more specific law should apply. Heldt said the law cited by the county is more specific in its intentions.

ILB: This is the second significant, and adverse to public access, ruling in so many days. Yesterday was the COA opinion on "reasonable particularity."

Posted by Marcia Oddi on January 30, 2013 04:00 PM
Posted to Ind. Trial Ct. Decisions