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Hearst Television Wins Right to Know Case against Pennsylvania Coroner

Hearst Television, Inc., through its television affiliate WGAL-TV and reporter, Daniel O'Donnell, finally prevailed on its appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that it was entitled to obtain information responsive to a records request with the Cumberland County Coroner, Michael Norris, to obtain death records for a college student in Shippensburg. Hearst filed that request under the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law (RTKL), 65 P.S. Section 67.305.

That Act, according to the decision, "presumes that all records in possession (of) a local agency are public and therefore accessible for inspection and duplication." 65 P.S. Sections 67.101-67.305 and 67.701. "A public record is defined as a "record, including a financial record, of a Commonwealth or local agency that: (1) is not exempt under section 708; (2) is not exempt from being disclosed under any other Federal or State law or regulation or judicial order or decree; or (3) is not protected by a privilege." 65 P.S. Section 67.102. Section 708(b)(20) contains a provision that autopsy records of a coroner are exempt, but provides, "(t)his exception shall not limit the reporting of the name of the deceased individual and the cause and manner of death." 65 P.S. Section 67.708(b )(20).

The Cumberland County Coroner had asserted that Section 1251 of the Coroner's Act required only that all such records be disclosed at year end, and that he had discretion as to when such disclosures were made prior to that time. Hearst appealed that order to the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records (OOR), who upheld the coroner's decision, and on appeal, the trial court and the Commonwealth Court affirmed.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Middle District reversed, holding the Coroner's interpretation of Section 1251 and 1236.1(a) of the Coroner's Act was flawed, and that neither statute granted him any discretion other than the mandatory, immediate release authorized under the RTKL. In doing so, it clarified the holding in Penn Jersey Advance, Inc., v. Grim, 962 A.2d 632, 636 (Pa.2009), relied upon by the Coroner and cited by the lower courts, agreeing with Hearst that there was no conflict between the two statutes, and that the only time the word, "discretion" appears in Section 1236.1 is "in subsection (a) in relation to deciding whether to comply with requests that the coroner undertake certain task, specifically, 'examinations and other professional service.'"

The court also held that Section 708(b)(20) of the RTKL enumerates various exemptions to disclosure of documents and records, but does not, "specifically...encompass case and manner of death records," according to the opinion, which reversed the finding of the Commonwealth Court and ordered release of the Coroner's records as requested. See: Hearst Television, Inc. v. Norris, 54 A.3d 23 (Pa. 2012).

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Related legal case

Hearst Television, Inc. v. Norris