HSPA Foundation continues support for newspaper’s lawsuit

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The HSPA Foundation board voted to extend its financial support of the Evansville Courier & Press lawsuit seeking access to certificates of death that contain the cause of demise.

The decision follows a negative ruling by a three-judge panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals in the newspaper’s lawsuit with southern Indiana resident Rita Ward against the Vanderburgh County Health Department. Click here to download the ruling.

Steve Key, executive director and general counsel for HSPA, believes the appellate court made the same mistake as the trial court judge, melding two different death records into one.

There are three types of death records created when an individual dies in the state of Indiana.

Certification of death

This is an official document that families need to settle affairs following a death, such as collection of life insurance benefits.

The local health department creates this record, per IC 16-37-1-8.

A health officer makes this record available only when the requestor shows he or she has a direct interest in the matter. The certificate must be needed to determine personal or property rights or in compliance with state or federal law.

The requester must present at least one form of identification. The public at large cannot obtain copies of this record.

Permanent records made from death certificates

The local health department creates this document, per IC 16-37-3-9.

The death record includes the following information: name, sex, age, place of death, residence, residence addresses of the deceased during the two years before the death, and Social Security number.

Except for the Social Security number, the record is open to public inspection.

Certificate of death

The person charged with interment must file this record with the local health officer, per IC 16-37-3-3.

That person shall present the certificate of death to the physician of the deceased. The doctor will certify the cause of death. (See IC 16-37-3-5).

A 1998 Indiana attorney general opinion (Official Opinion 98-01) stated that the record created under this statute (when kept by the county health department) was a public record subject to public inspection.

The attorney general’s opinion is consistent with and relies upon an Indiana Court of Appeals decision (Evansville-Vanderburgh County Department of Health v. Evansville Printing Corp., 332 N.E.2d 829).

While this makes the certificate of death available at the county level, IC 16-37-1-10 makes the records concerning vital statistics collected at the state level basically closed to the public.

The Court of Appeals ruling in the new case (Evansville Courier & Press and Rita Ward v. Vanderburgh County Health Department) melds the certification of death and the certificate of death.

The court then ruled that both are not subject to public access, except for families needing the record for life insurance and other personal purposes.

If the Indiana Supreme Court upholds the appellate ruling, citizens and journalists will be unable to use death information to chart potential health risks, like cancer clusters.

Ward tracked causes of death in her area to further her support of anti-smoking efforts.

Under this ruling, the only cases where the cause of death would be publicly reported would be deaths investigated by a county coroner.

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