Home » News » Ohio Supreme Court: Info on deceased persons in database stays secret

By Dennis Hetzel, published on April 23, 2024

Select Dynamic field

Photo courtesy iStock

Even though death certificates that include the deceased’s name, address and cause of death are public records in Ohio, the state’s Supreme Court has ruled that the same information is secret as a “protected health record” if it’s compiled in a database.

A retired journalist, Randy Ludlow of The Columbus Dispatch, wanted a database of death information from the state’s Department of Health that could shed light on how nursing homes were responding early in the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. By a 5-2 majority, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that an exception in the state’s open-records law that allows the government to block disclosure of information applied. 

As reported by The Columbus DispatchOhio Capital Journal and other outlets, Justice Patrick Fischer’s majority opinion said the names and addresses combined with other medical information constituted protected health information, upholding the department’s argument that state law prohibited it from releasing specific identifying information from the database it agreed to compile for Ludlow. Instead, the department offered to provide a heavily redacted list.

Ludlow won his initial appeal through Ohio’s process in the Ohio Court of Claims that allows citizens to fight records denials through a process that does not require an attorney or going to court. 

“The requested death data is thus expressly and indisputably ‘public,'” Jeffrey Clark, special master in the Court of Claims process, wrote at the time, noting that the information Ludlow sought was readily available to probate courts, funeral directors, lenders and the general public.

However, the department took the ruling to the Ohio Supreme Court and prevailed in a ruling issued on April 17. 

In a dissenting opinion as reported by Court News Ohio, Justice Jennifer Brunner agreed with Clark. 

“ … under R.C. 3705.231, all that is needed to access and copy a death record that presumably contains information regarding the deceased individual’s name, address, and cause of death – information that the majority opinion asserts is protected health information – is to ask and it shall be permitted,” she wrote.

The court also rejected Ludlow’s assertion that privacy requirements don’t apply once a person is dead, upholding a decision that blocked journalists’ access to school records of a deceased gunman who killed nine people in Dayton, Ohio.


Mich. department sued over refusal to share virus records – The Free Speech Center (mtsu.edu)

Ohio court rejects request for Dayton gunman school records – The Free Speech Center (mtsu.edu)


More than 1,700 articles on First Amendment topics, court cases and history