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Evansville Courier & Press v. Vanderburgh County Health Dep't

Supreme Court of Indiana

October 7, 2014

EVANSVILLE COURIER & PRESS AND RITA WARD, Appellants (Plaintiffs below),
v.
VANDERBURGH COUNTY HEALTH DEPARTMENT, Appellee (Defendant below)

Appeal from the Vanderburgh Circuit Court, No. 82C01-1208-PL-409. The Honorable Carl A. Heldt, Judge. On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 82A04-1302-PL-57.

Page 923

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS: Patrick A. Shoulders, Jean M. Blanton, Evansville, Indiana.

ATTORNEYS FOR AMICUS CURIAE INDIANA COALITION FOR OPEN GOVERNMENT: Kurt A. Webber, Carmel, Indiana.

ATTORNEYS FOR AMICUS CURIAE HOOSIER STATE PRESS ASSOCIATION FOUNDATION: Steven M. Badger, Leah N. Wilson, Indianapolis, Indiana.

ATTORNEYS FOR AMICUS CURIAE STATE OF INDIANA: Gregory F. Zoeller, Attorney General of Indiana, Stephen R. Creason, Anne Mullin O'Connor, Deputy Attorneys General, Indianapolis, Indiana.

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: Joseph H. Harrison, Jr., E. Lee Veazey, Evansville, Indiana.

Massa, Justice. Rush, C.J., and Dickson, Rucker, and David, JJ., concur.

OPINION

Page 924

Massa, Justice.

This case presents the issue of whether the certificates of death that doctors, coroners, and funeral directors file with county health departments pursuant to Indiana Code chapter 16-37-3 are public records that a county health department must provide public access to under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act. We believe they are, and therefore we reverse the trial court.

Facts and Procedural History

A. The Creation of Indiana's Death Record System

In 1881, preventable diseases caused 25% of deaths in Indiana. 19 Brevier Legis. Rep. 200 (1881). In addition to the obvious human cost, those deaths created an adverse economic impact on the state estimated at over $15 million dollars each year. Id. In an effort to ameliorate this condition, Senator Flavius J. Van Vorhis of Marion, Indiana proposed legislation to create a State Board of Health.[1] Id. at 83. Senator Van Vorhis drafted his bill " upon the experience of twenty-two States having

Page 925

similar laws," id. at 84, and charged the Board to " endeavor to make intelligent and profitable use of the collected records of deaths and of sickness among the people" and recommend legislation to promote Hoosiers' health and well-being. 1881 Ind. Acts ch. 19, § 2. To that end, the new law empowered the Board to create and supervise a " system of registration of births, deaths and marriages." Id. at § 7.

It also established county boards of health designed to work in partnership with the State Board: " The Board of Health of each county shall act in conjunction with the State Board of Health, and it shall be the duty of the Secretary of such County Boards . . . to report such facts and statistics as may be required under instructions from, and according to, forms and blanks furnished by said Board." Id. at § 9. When a death occurred, the attending physician or caregiver was required to report the fact and cause of death to the board of the applicable locality. Id. at § 10. A physician making such a report was required to submit " a certificate of the cause of death, and such correlative facts as may be required in the blank forms furnished." Id. And these death certificates were public records:

It shall be the duty of the Board of Health of each county to keep a complete record, according to the form prescribed by the State Board, of all marriages, births and deaths reported to them under the provisions of this act, and such record shall be open to the inspection of any citizen without fee.

Id. at § 12. Over the decades, the General Assembly amended this statutory scheme many times, but the county boards of health remained responsible for collecting, retaining, and producing individual death certificates, while the State Board compiled and analyzed the records and recommended appropriate public policy.

B. Indiana's Contemporary Death Record System

Indiana's death record system begins with the death certificate, which contains data used to generate a variety of other records. A certificate of death is created pursuant to Indiana Code section 16-37-3-3(a) (Supp. 2013),[2] which provides:

The physician last in attendance upon the deceased or 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 local health officer shall retain a copy of the certificate of death.

It must include the decedent's cause of death as certified by the attending physician or local health officer. Ind. Code § § 16-37-3-5 (2008 & Supp. 2013), -6(b) (2008). Since January 1, 2011, the person filing the death certificate must use a state-created electronic database, the Indiana Death Registration System, " to file a certificate of death with the local health officer of the jurisdiction in which the death occurred." Ind. Code § 16-37-3-3(b); see also Ind. Code § 16-37-1-3.1 (Supp. 2013) (establishing the Indiana Death Registration System).

Once the death certificate is filed, the local health officer must use the information thereon to " make a permanent record" that does not include the cause of death. Ind. Code ยง 16-37-3-9(a) (2008). The permanent record, with the ...


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