Keeping death certification accessible is ‘victory for the public’

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Both the Hoosier State Press Association and the Indiana attorney general are applauding the Indiana Supreme Court’s ruling Tuesday that cause of death information is public.

A unanimous Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s ruling and held members of the public have the right to review death certificates which include information about how the individuals died.

“It’s a situation where the system worked,” said Stephen Key, executive director and general counsel for the HSPA. “The Supreme Court got it right.”

In the case, Evansville Courier & Press and Rita Ward v. Vanderburgh County Health Department, 82S04-1401-PL-49, the Vanderburgh Circuit Court agreed with the health department that cause of death was not public information.

An Indiana Court of Appeals panel unanimously affirmed in 2013.

However, in what Key described as a straightforward decision written by Justice Mark Massa, the Supreme Court found that certificates of death that doctors, coroners and funeral directors file with county health departments are public records.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller’s office had filed an amicus brief and participated in oral arguments in support of public access.

“Consistent with the principle of transparency, we asked the Supreme Court to return to the longstanding practice of making the cause of death in death certificates available to the public who has the right to know and the Court agreed,” Zoeller said. “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.”

 Prior to the ruling by the Vanderburgh Circuit Court, death certificates with cause of death had been available to the public. In fact, the Court of Appeals had ruled in 1975 in favor of access.  

Key called the Supreme Court’s decision a “victory for the public.”

Now, he said, private citizens have the ability to monitor how people die in their county either to learn their own family’s medical history or to research potential concerns about public health hazards.

Plaintiff Rita Ward was researching the number of people who died of cancer caused by smoking when she requested death certificates for May 2012.

Key noted efforts in past legislative sessions to limit access to death certificates in order to protect a family’s privacy. He conceded a legislator might introduce a bill curbing availability in the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly

However, the Supreme Court pointed to the Legislature’s repeated rejection of efforts to hide cause of death from the public. In 2003, 2005 and 2006, the legislators defeated three bills which would have kept death certificates from the public.   

Key also downplayed the possibility that health departments would react to this decision by being vague about the cause of death. Because the Supreme Court’s opinion is clear, he does not expect county health departments will deny access.

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