Indiana Supreme Court sides with newspaper, rules causes of death are public information

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EVANSVILLE, Indiana — The Indiana Supreme Court has ruled that causes of death are public records and must be available at county levels.

The unanimous 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 deceased.

"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."

Each county 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.

Vanderburgh 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 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 statement.

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