No Immediate Access to Coroner Information under RTKL

On November 16, 2010, a three judge panel of the Commonwealth Court held that the Right-to-Know Law (RTKL) does not provide immediate access to the name of a deceased and the manner of death.  Hearst Television, Inc. et al. v. Norris et al., 95 C.D. 2010.  The unanimous decision upheld the Cumberland County trial court decision which affirmed the Office of Open Records denial of a television station’s request that this information be immediately disclosed under § 708(20) of the RTKL.  Although both the coroner and the station agreed that the information was public record, they disagreed on when the information had to be released.  The station asserted that the exception language within the general exemption for autopsy records under § 708(20) required immediate release of the information upon the filing of a RTK request.  The coroner argued, however, that this provision conflicted with the Coroner’s Act which only requires the coroner to deposit death records with the Prothonotary’s Office within 30 days of the end of the calendar year.  The court examined both sections of the law, as well as, a decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided under the prior version of the RTKL, Penn Jersey Advance Inc. v. Grim, and determined that the exception within § 708(20) directly conflicted with the provisions of the Coroner’s Act and, therefore, under § 3101.1 of the RTKL, the RTKL had to yield to the Coroner’s Act.  The court also held that neither party was entitled to attorneys’ fees, as this was a novel and complicated issue.

Thus, in Pennsylvania, unless this information is provided voluntarily by the police or coroner or one is willing to pay up to $100 or more to obtain a copy of the autopsy report from the coroner under the provisions of the Coroner’s Act, no general right of public access to such information will be available until January 30 of each year for deaths occurring in the previous year.  The obvious problems this creates, for media and other requesters seeking the information sooner particularly if the death occurs early in the year, are readily apparent.  It will be interesting to see if the station appeals the ruling, although in the face of the Penn Jersey decision from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which is only a little over a year old, albeit decided under the prior version of the RTKL, that course of action may prove daunting.

Disclaimer:  This blog is maintained by the members of Nauman Smith’s Media and Right-to-Know Law practice group.  The members of this practice group represent both: 1) media entities, individuals and corporations seeking access to public records, and 2) local municipalities seeking to comply with the law.  THIS BLOG IS NOT MEANT TO BE USED AS LEGAL ADVICE.  The purpose of this blog is to provide educational material for individuals interested in Pennsylvania’s open records law, commonly referred to as the “Right-to-Know Law” or “RTKL”.  The opinions expressed by the individual members of the practice group are solely their own, and do not reflect the opinions of Nauman, Smith, Shissler & Hall, LLP, or the practice group as a whole.