Q&A: Coroner’s reports and records


From The Exponent (Purdue University):

Q: A Purdue student died in an off-campus apartment. We asked the Tippecanoe County coroner for information related to the autopsy and received the following information: “Death was accidental due to respiratory arrest due to mixed drug intoxication.”

The coroner said I could get a copy of the death certificate, but I’d have to get it from the county health department and pay a fee for a certified death certificate.

She denied my request for a copy of the autopsy report, a summary report or any additional information. Does the coroner have to provide the toxicology report upon request? Does the information I received fulfill the public documents requirement?

A: No, you aren’t guaranteed access to the toxicology report, and yes, the information you received fulfills Access to Public Records Act requirements.

The coroner has given you his conclusions as to the cause of death, manner of death and mechanism of death, which is required under the coroner’s report that must be created and made available to the public for inspection and copying.

The autopsy itself and accompanying reports, such as toxicology, fall under the investigatory records provision of the Access to Public Records Act, so she has the discretion to disclose them or keep them confidential.

Access to the certificate of death is the subject of a lawsuit that has been appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court. There are conflicting state Court of Appeals rulings.

I would say you don’t need a certified copy of the death certificate. That document is needed to assert property rights by the family, which is a different record than the certificate of death (depending upon which court ruling you favor).

Regardless, the certificate of death would include the cause of death, which you already have from the coroner’s report.

Contact Steve Key, HSPA executive director and general counsel, with media law questions at skey@hspa.com or (317) 624-4427.