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Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Ind. Decisons - Supreme Court rules that certificates of death are public records

In Evansville Courier & Press and Rita Ward v. Vanderburgh County Health Department, a 13-page, 5-0 opinion much awaited, Justice Massa writes:

This case presents the issue of whether the certificates of death that doctors, coroners, and funeral directors file with county health departments pursuant to Indiana Code chapter 16-37-3 are public records that a county health department must provide public access to under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act. We believe they are, and therefore we reverse the trial court.

Death Certificates Are Public Records and May Be Freely Obtained from the County Health Department.

Appellants argue the trial court’s ruling was erroneous because (1) although the Department claims it does not have the requested records, Indiana Code section 16-37-3-3 requires the Department to maintain a copy of each death certificate filed, and (2) those death certificates are “public records” subject to APRA and not covered by any statutory exemption. We agree.

A. County Health Departments Must Keep a Copy of Each Death Certificate Filed. * * *

B. Death Certificates Are Public Records for the Purpose of APRA.

Appellants contend death certificates, including the cause of death information thereupon, are public records and therefore subject to APRA, which provides: “Any person may inspect and copy the public records of any public agency during the regular business hours of the agency.” Ind. Code § 5-14-3-3(a) (2010 & Supp. 2013). * * *

In our society, death is an intimate and personal matter. We recognize that public disclosure of the details of a decedent’s death may cause pain to his family and friends. We are also mindful of the importance of open and transparent government to the health of our body politic. Our General Assembly has considered these competing interests and, insofar as we can determine, concluded that the public interest outweighs the private. Indeed, in recent history, it has rejected three bills that would have exempted death certificates from APRA. See H.B. 1067 § 11, 114th Gen. Assem., 2nd Reg. Sess. (Ind. 2006); H.B. 1551 § 9, 114th Gen. Assem., 1st Reg. Sess. (Ind. 2005); H.B. 1540 § 8, 113th Gen. Assem., 1st Reg. Sess. (Ind. 2003). Even if we wished to rebalance the scales, it is beyond our power to do so.

Conclusion. We reverse the trial court and remand this case for entry of summary judgment in plaintiffs’ favor. Upon remand, the trial court should also determine whether to award plaintiffs their attorney’s fees and if so, how much.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on October 7, 2014 12:10 PM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions