Ohio’s Supreme Court rules the state death database with names and addresses isn’t a public record

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (Statehouse News Bureau) — A state death database with information from death certificates including causes of death along with names and addresses is not a public record.

Former Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton points at a chart as she talks about "flattening the curve" of COVID patients so hospitals aren't overwhelmed, on March 11, 2020.
Former Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton points at a chart as she talks about “flattening the curve” of COVID patients so hospitals aren’t overwhelmed, on March 11, 2020. [Andy Chow | Statehouse News Bureau]
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled 5-2 on a lawsuit from now-retired Columbus Dispatch reporter Randy Ludlow, who filed requests for that state death database while tracking COVID in 2020 and 2021. He eventually received death certificate information without names or addresses, which ODH said were not public information.

The court’s four Republicans and Democratic Justice Melody Stewart agreed with Steven Carney, who represented the Ohio Department of Health before the court in October in the lawsuit over the state’s health privacy law.

“What is protected is anything that reflects your medical health condition, medical treatment, past or future,” Carney told the justices. “The analogy to, oh, this is just like a file cabinet is not so this it contains a lot more. And we do have an express exception the health privacy law that says, when you spit out mass data, don’t give names and addresses.”

The justices ruled that while some specific information can be released after death, there’s nothing in the law that requires the state to release identifying cause of death information in bulk.

The other two Democrats dissented, saying living people have the right to protection of their health information but dead people don’t, unless they’re in the Ohio Violent Death Reporting System, which was set up as exempt from public records laws.

The attorney representing Ludlow had argued that state law is unclear on whether dead people have privacy rights, and noted information such as autopsy reports are not shielded.

The Ohio Court of Claims, which settles disputes about public records, had sided with Ludlow, but the appeals court ruled for the state.