County coroner offices are not required to immediately release manner-of-death reports under the state Right-to-Know Law, according to a Tuesday ruling in Hearst Television v. Michael Norris by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.
Although the law requires the timely release of public records and manner-of-death reports are considered open to the public, it also clearly states that it does not apply when it conflicts with other state statutes. The court ruled that the law contradicts the Coroner’s Act, which does not require a coroner's office to make its records public until 30 days after the end of the calendar year.
In the case before the court Tuesday, television station WGAL, a Hearst Television Inc. company, sued the coroner of Cumberland County for access to reports stating the manner of death of a student at Shippensburg University who was found dead in his apartment in April 2009. Michael Norris, who was the coroner at the time, but has since retired, refused to provide the document until 30 days into 2010 as the Coroner’s Act sets forth.
At the time, there wasn’t a document available, Norris said.
“I did not have the answer. An autopsy had been scheduled; it hadn’t yet been completed when they called” and the results would not be available for a couple months, he said. When the report did become available, Norris still chose to wait to release it.
“At that point, I was not going to release the document until 30 days after the year because the family had asked me specifically not to make that information public,” he said. “I’m a firm believer in individual privacy.”
WGAL appealed to the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, which agreed with the coroner’s decision to delay releasing the report under the Coroner's Act. That ruling was upheld on appeal to the trial court and affirmed again Tuesday.
The court's decision only supports the coroner's use of discretion in delaying the release. It found nothing in the Coroner's Act that prevents early disclosure or compels the coroner to publicize the records earlier than the statutory requirement.
“This thing has stretched on long enough,” said current Cumberland County Coroner Todd Eckenrode. “I think it’s sad that they continue on when the court systems keep saying that they agree with the Right-to-Know Law and agree with the previous coroner and his decision.”
WGAL was concerned as to why the coroner’s office was resisting in this case.
“We’ve never been asked to wait for these kinds of records. Cause and manner of death was just something you expected to get whenever you asked for it,” said WGAL News Director Daniel O’Donnell. He said he was unaware of the coroner’s motive for denial.