The Indiana Supreme Court has ruled that causes of death are public records and must be available at county levels.
The ruling Tuesday came in a lawsuit filed by the Evansville Courier & Press and resident Rita Ward after the Vanderburgh County Health Department denied access to the information in 2012.
The health department said state law required it to restrict access to the information, and a local judge sided with the agency. The state appeals court upheld his ruling.
The Supreme Court acknowledged that public disclosure of the cause of death might be painful for relatives and friends of the deceased. But it said the General Assembly has rejected numerous attempts to exempt death certificates from public records laws.
The lower court had concluded held that a private citizen with no “direct interest in the matter or the information” could only inspect the “permanent record” at the local health department. That record does not list the reason for the death.
Disagreeing, the Supreme Court found the certificates of death that doctors, coroners and funeral directors file with county health departments are public records. Justice Mark Massa, writing for a unanimous court, acknowledged the balance between private personal information and the public’s right to know.
“In our society, death is an intimate and personal matter,” Massa wrote. “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.”
The dispute began in June 2012 when the Vanderburgh County Health Department denied two requests from Rita Ward and the Evansville Courier & Press to review local death records from May 2012.
Both the trial court and the Indiana Court of Appeals agreed with the Vanderburgh County Health Department that the death certificates are not public records. Specifically, the department cited two statutes, Indiana Code 16-37-1-8 and -10, that it believed declare death certificates confidential.
In reaching the opposite conclusion, the Supreme Court pointed to a substantially similar case from 1975 in which the Court of Appeals ruled death certificates were public records.
“We see no reason to reach a different conclusion today,” Massa wrote. “As we read the statute, the General Assembly has drawn a distinction between a certificate of death, which is intended to record cause of death data for use by health officials, and a certification of death registration, which is intended to authenticate the death for the purpose of property disposition. The former is a public record while the latter is confidential.”
Rita Ward, an anti-smoking advocate from Winslow who joined in the lawsuit, said information about causes of deaths can be an educational tool that leads people to schedule preventive exams and lead healthier lifestyles.
Stephen Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, told the newspaper that the ruling was a victory for transparency.
"People in the community will be able to track, as Rita Ward was trying to do, the cause of death," Key said. "Cancer clusters can be identified, other communicable diseases or environmentally caused deaths can be tracked and documented."
The Indiana attorney general's office had filed a brief with the state Supreme Court supporting the public's right to access cause of death information.
"We all must be sensitive to Hoosiers' privacy concerns particularly with families who have suffered a recent loss; but the intent of state law is that the certificate of death — listing the deceased's name, age and cause of death — must be accessible at the county level," Attorney General Greg Zoeller said in a written statement.
The Supreme Court remanded the case for entry of summary judgment in plaintiffs’ favor. It also instructed the trial court to determine whether to award plaintiffs attorney fees.