(AP) — The Indiana Supreme Court has ruled that causes of death are public
records and must be available at county levels.
ruling, released Tuesday, came in a lawsuit filed by the Evansville
Courier & Press and a Pike County woman 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. A local judge had sided with the agency and the state appeals
court upheld his ruling.
The Supreme Court
ruling, written by Justice Mark Massa, acknowledged that public disclosure
of the cause of death might be painful for relatives and friends of the
"We are also
mindful of the importance of open and transparent government to the health
of our body politic," the ruling said. "Our General Assembly has
considered these competing interests and, insofar as we can determine,
concluded that the public interest outweighs the private."
health department has "an unambiguous statutory obligation to collect and
maintain death certificates," the court said, and a county agency would be
violating state law by not storing the records.
County officials had contended a state law that took effect in 2011
restricted cause of death information only to those who could prove they
had a direct interest in it, such as a spouse or immediate relative. That
law also created an electronic Indiana Death Registration System, which
the Vanderburgh County health administrator said eliminated all paper
copies of death records and is maintained solely by the state.
Rita Ward, an
anti-smoking advocate from Winslow who joined the newspaper in the
lawsuit, said information about causes of deaths can be an educational
tool that leads people to schedule preventive exams and lead healthier
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
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 statement.