On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Middlesex County.
O'Brien, Havey and Stern. The opinion of the court was delivered by O'Brien, J.A.D.
This case involves plaintiff newspaper's right to random inspection of records of deaths registered within a stated period of time with defendant State Registrar of Vital Statistics.*fn1 The trial judge dismissed the newspaper's complaint which asserted both a common law right to such random inspection as well as a right under the Right to Know Law. N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 et seq. The newspaper appeals and we now reverse under the Right to Know Law.
In November 1986, a reporter for plaintiff newspaper received information from a nurse, who allegedly worked in the delivery room of a local hospital, that a baby had died in October or November 1986 due to a lack of staff to watch monitors, although the parents had been told that the baby died of toxemia. According to the informant, the hospital administration was attempting to cover up the matter. Since she was fearful of losing her job, the informant did not give the reporter the name of the infant, but promised to verify the name if the reporter obtained it.
The reporter decided to search the death certificates on file in the local registrar's office to determine if an infant had died of toxemia at the involved hospital during the time period alleged by the informant. Because the reporter was aware of the local
registrar's practice not to release death certificates unless the name and year of death were provided, she telephoned the office of the local registrar and asked if she could:
At the suggestion of the local registrar,*fn2 the reporter called the State Registrar of Vital Statistics to make the same request which was again denied.
The reporter explained that on prior occasions in the performance of her duties she had examined police records, divorce files, liens, mortgages, deeds, tax records and the like and had never been denied access to the records nor required to pay a fee to randomly examine them. She did not request permission to go into a secured area where the records were kept, but rather that the records be brought to her at a counter for her examination. She conceded that she had not attempted to obtain any hospital records because of their confidentiality, nor did she contact any funeral directors in the area.
On December 29, 1986, the newspaper instituted this suit alleging that death certificates are public records both at common law and pursuant to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 et seq., and that "the refusal of defendants to release the requested information is contrary to plaintiff's common law right to such information" and "contrary to the terms and provisions of N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 et seq." It sought an order allowing plaintiff access to the records.
Initially, the trial judge entered an order on May 22, 1987, transferring the case to the Appellate Division pursuant to R. 2:2-3(a)(2). After oral argument, we remanded it to the Law Division on March 16, 1988, concluding that the Law Division
had jurisdiction to hear and determine the issues raised by plaintiff's complaint, "particularly since the issues raised are fact sensitive and require development of a record."
At the trial on August 15, 1988, the newspaper reporter, as well as the State Registrar of Vital Statistics and the local registrar testified. The trial judge noted that both registrars testified ". . . that the document itself is not available to the general public, that copies may be secured if a name is supplied and a time period is requested for which there is a fee." Although the State Registrar had testified that this procedure was necessary for the preservation of the records which precluded a random search by the public, the ...