Legal Hotline : Right to Know Law and Manner of Death

  • Jul 28, 2016

Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel

Q:  A car accident tragically resulted in a fatality, and the police have refused to provide the name of the deceased, citing an ongoing investigation.  Does the Right to Know Law (RTKL) require public access to this information?

A:  Yes.  The RTKL expressly provides public access to name, cause and manner of death records in possession of the coroner or medical examiner.

Section 708(b)(20) of the RTKL exempts a number of records from public access, but this provision  expressly does not extend to  name, cause and manner of death information.  Further, in interpreting this provision of the law, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the Right to Know Law and the Coroners Act make name, cause and manner of death records immediately available under the law. See Hearst Television, Inc. v. Norris, et al. , 54 A.3d 23 (Pa. 2012).

Requests for name, cause and manner of death should be directed to the county coroner or medical examiner, and many provide this information to the press informally without the need for a formal, written RTKL request.  If a written request is required, the coroner or medical examiner must respond, in writing, within the time frames of the law, and within 5 business days from the date the request was received.

As always, this is not intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice. Please contact your news organization’s private counsel or the PNA Legal Hotline at (717) 703-3080 with questions.    

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