Lawsuit seeks access to records on cause of death

Newspaper contends death certificates are public records; health department says no

By Mark Wilson
Evansville Courier & Press

EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — While attorneys argued in court Wednesday over whether documents containing causes of death are public records, a Vanderburgh County Health Department official told the judge the agency doesn’t keep those records.

Health Department Administrator Gary Heck said the agency does not keep death certificates with the cause of death information for county residents.

The disclosure came during a hearing on a lawsuit by a Pike County resident and the Evansville Courier & Press seeking access to causes of death information.

The newspaper and Rita Ward of Winslow, Ind., contend 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, when the health department suddenly stopped including death causes in the information it provided to the newspaper.

At issue is which Indiana law governs its disclosure, whether the information is kept by the state or the county and whether the county is legally required to provide the information to the public.

State law requires local health departments to keep such records and make them available to the public, attorney Pat Shoulders said during Wednesday’s hearing. Shoulders represents Ward and the newspaper in the lawsuit.

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.”

Heck made a similar statement in a written response to a Courier & Press request in August, stating that the health department “must deny your request for copies of such records because it does not have any documents to copy which would be responsive to your request.”

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.

Circuit Court Judge Carl Heldt, who is retiring after this year, said he will retain jurisdiction of the case as a special judge and make a ruling in January.

Ward said she sought to find out what was behind the change when the newspaper stopped publishing death causes, because she is interested in the public health implications the information might reveal, such as possible links to smoking-related illnesses.

The health department does provide death certificates to people who can prove they have a direct interest in a death, such as a spouse or immediate relative, but for an $11.75 fee.
“It’s the health department’s opinion that they don’t feel they can give a death certificate to anybody who comes in off the street,” Vanderburgh County Attorney Joseph Harrison Jr. said in court.

When Ward was denied access to the information in June, she filed a complaint with the Indiana Public Access Counselor, who gave a nonbinding opinion in her favor.

Public Access Counselor Joseph Hoage said the requirements that people must show a direct interest in the information applied to the state’s death registration system and were changes the state Legislature made beginning in January 2011. However, he said, Indiana law still requires local health departments to maintain records of the death certificates filed by physicians and make them available to the public.

Hoage based his opinion on a 1998 opinion from the Indiana Attorney General’s Office that said death certificates are public record. That opinion was based in part on a 1975 Indiana Court of Appeals decision upholding former Vanderburgh Circuit Court Judge William Miller’s decision in a 1973 case in which a reporter from the former Evansville Press sought a death record from the health department.

The Courier & Press requested the death records again after Hoage issued his opinion, but the newspaper’s request was denied by the health department. The lawsuit was then filed.
Shoulders said the laws relate to two different death records. One is the death certificate required to be filed with and kept by local health departments. The other is a certificate of death registration kept by the Indiana State Department of Health, which provides basic information about the deceased, including the cause.