Evansville-Vanderburgh County Dept. of Health v. Evansville Printing Corp.

Decision Date20 August 1975
Docket NumberEVANSVILLE-VANDERBURGH,No. 1--1274A177,1--1274A177
Citation332 N.E.2d 829,165 Ind.App. 437
PartiesCOUNTY DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. The EVANSVILLE PRINTING CORPORATION et al., Defendants-Appellees.
CourtIndiana Appellate Court
Cox Schroeder, Dodd, Mitchell, Terry & Appel, Evansville, for appellant

Harry P. Dees, Evansville, for appellees; Kahn, Dees, Donovan & Kahn, Evansville, of counsel.

LYBROOK, Judge.

Plaintiff-appellant Evansville-Vanderburgh County Department of Health (local Health Officer) initiated this declaratory judgment action seeking a determination of whether its governing statutes require disclosure to defendant-appellee newspapers of information concerning the cause of death of individuals. From a judgment declaring the right of the newspapers to receive such information on request, the local Health Officer appeals.

Those findings of fact and conclusions of law relevant to consideration of the issues presented herein appear in the record as follows:

'FINDINGS OF FACT

3. That L. D. Seits, a reporter for the defendant The Evansville Press Company, Inc., in the latter part of May or early part of June, 1973 went to the office of the Evansville-Vanderburgh County Department of Health and requested of the health officer of the City of Evansville-Vanderburgh County to inspect the medical certificate of death or death certificate signed by a physician or coroner of a certain individual who had died in this county. That said department and local health officer refused access to this information to the said Seits; that thereupon Seits tendered $2.00 and requested a Local Certified Record of Death of such individual, showing the cause of death, and this was likewise refused. That the defendants may from time to time seek information within the control of the plaintiff regarding cause of death of persons who have died in Vanderburgh County, Indiana, and that the plaintiff, Evansville-Vanderburgh County Department of Health, has refused to divulge this information to the defendants or reporters in the past and unless otherwise ordered by this court will refuse to do so in the future.

4. . . . the only record in the possession of the Evansville-Vanderburgh County Department of Health and the local health officer of a specific individual's death is the form provided by the Indiana State Board of Health entitled 'Medical Certificate of Death', which is presented by the funeral director or person in charge of interment to the attending physician to certify and sign said certificate showing the cause of death. . . .

6. That the Evansville-Vanderburgh County Department of Health and the local health officer of the City of Evansville, Vanderburgh County, Indiana, at the time of filing of this action, for many years prior thereto, since said time and to the present date, have on request of any person, except the defendant newspapers or their reporters, issued for a fee of $2.00 (formerly $1.00) a certificate entitled 'Local Certified Record of Death' which shows the primary cause of death of any person dying in Vanderburgh County.

CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

3. That the law is with the defendants and that the plaintiff is entitled to a declaratory 4. That the following statutes require that upon the death of a person dying in Vanderburgh County, Indiana and upon a stillbirth occurring in Vanderburgh County, Indiana there shall be filed in the office of the local health officer, which in this case would be the plaintiff, a certificate of death or stillbirth upon which the physician last in attendance or the coroner of the local health officer shall certify the cause of death; IC 1971, 16--1--17--1 through 16--1--17--5 (Burns Indiana Statutes 35--1901 through 35--1905).

judgment in this action pursuant to Trial Rule 57 and IC 1971, 34--4--10--2 (Burns Indiana Statutes 3--1102) interpreting the statutes and declaring the rights and other legal relationships of the parties.

5. That by virtue of I.C.1971, 16--1--17--6 (Burns Indiana Statutes 35-- 1906), and by virtue of the Hughes Anti-Secrecy Act, I.C.1971, 5--14--1--2 through 5--14--1--5 (Burns Indiana Statutes 57--601 through 57--605) such certificates of death or stillbirth which contain the cause of death of the deceased, including the document currently in use called 'Indiana State Board of Health Medical Certificate of Death' and which is attached as Exhibit A to the Findings of Fact, or any form substituted therefor which certifies the cause of death, are public records of the local health board, the plaintiff in this case, and such records are open to public inspection, including making memoranda abstracts from the records so inspected, by members of the public, including the defendants herein, their reporters, agents and employees, at all reasonable times during the office hours of the local health board.

6. That by virtue of I.C.1971, 16--1--19--1 and 16--1--19--2 (Burns Indiana Statutes 35--2101 and 35--2102) any member of the public, including the defendants herein, their reporters, agents and employees, may request from the local health officer or employees of plaintiff a certificate of death of stillbirth on the form currently entitled 'Local Certified Record of Death', an example of which is attached as Exhibit B to the Findings of Fact, or any form substituted therefor, and which certificate shall show the cause of death or stillbirth from the records of the local health officer, upon the payment, currently, of a fee of $2.00, or any legal fee permissible by law, except that the person enumerated in subsections 1, 2 and 3 of I.C.1971, 16--1--19--1 (16--1--19--2) (Burns Indiana Statutes 35--2101 (35--2102)) shall not be required to pay such fee.'

In this appeal, the local Health Officer argues that the trial court erred in its conclusions of law nos. 5 and 6 and that under the relevant statutes, information within its control concerning the cause of an individual's death is confidential.

I.

The Public Health Code of Indiana provides for the filing of certificates of death or stillbirth with the local Health Officer of the jurisdiction in which death or stillbirth occurs. IC 1971, 16--1--17--1 (Burns Code Ed.). Upon the certificate, the physician last in attendance upon the deceased or, if none, the local Health Officer, must certify the cause of death. IC 1971, 16--1--17--3--16--1--17--4 (Burns Code Ed.).

The first question which we must consider is whether the certificates of death are confidential or whether they are public records as the trial court found in its conclusion of law no. 5.

Defendant newspapers argue that certificates of death are expressly made public records by virtue of IC 1971, 16--1--19--1 (Burns Code Ed.), which provides:

'Certificates--Provision on request.--A local health officer shall provide a certificate of birth, death, or stillbirth registration upon request by any person. (Acts 1949, ch. 157, § 1235, p. 416.)'

The error in defendants' argument lies in their interpretation that the document required to be issued under this section is the certificate of death required to be filed pursuant to IC 1971, 16--1--17--1, supra. They reach this position by urging that the word 'registration' modifies only the word 'stillbirth'. However, an examination of other sections of the Health Code fails to lend support to such a construction and compels the conclusion that 'registration' modifies the words 'birth', 'death', and 'stillbirth'. Defendants' assertion that their proposed construction is grammatically compelled by the use of the conjunction 'or' is incorrect. Therefore, the relevant document required to be issued under IC 1971, 16--1--19--1, supra, is a certificate of death registration. For reasons which will be discussed in part II infra of this opinion we conclude that this document is not the certificate of death required to be filed by IC 1971, 16--1--17--1, supra. Therefore, defendants' argument that certificates of death are public records by virtue of IC 1971, 16--1--19--1, supra, must fail.

The certificates of death filed with the local Health Officer provide the source of data for the compilation and maintenance of other records. IC 1971, 16--1--17--6 (Burns Code Ed.), provides:

'Permanent records.--The local health officer, from such stillbirth and death certificates, shall make a permanent record of the name, sex, age, place of death, and residence of deceased, which records shall be open to public inspection. The local health officer may also make records of such other data in connection with such deaths which he may desire for statistical purpose or for the purpose of planning health programs which latter records shall not be public records. (Acts 1949, ch. 157, § 1227, p. 416.)'

This section specifically provides that certain records compiled from the certificates of death shall be public records while others shall be confidential. It does not specifically state whether the certificates of death themselves shall be public or confidential. However, the local Health Officer contends that this section implies a...

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