Florida public records exemption law allows Bob Saget death photos to remain private

A Florida judge’s ruling Wednesday on records related to Bob Saget’s death investigation will keep sensitive information, including video and photos of his body, in the hands of the late actor’s loved ones for the time being.

Saget’s family has an arcane 21-year-old Florida law — and the late NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt — to thank for allowing them to keep the records private.

The court ruling in favor of Saget’s wife, Kelly Rizzo, and three daughters found that Saget’s family would suffer “irreparable harm” if the records were released to the public now. Ninth Circuit Judge Vincent Chiu added in his ruling that the “plaintiffs have a clear legal right or interest in the Protected Records as the surviving spouse and children of Mr. Saget.”

Rules governing the release of autopsy reports and related documents vary from state to state. In Florida, exemptions apply to photographs, video and recordings from death investigations, as well as photos and videos that may have been included in autopsy reports.

“That information is exempt from our public records laws. It’s not subject to public disclosure. The medical examiner is prohibited from releasing it to anyone but the family,” said Virginia Hamrick, a staff attorney at the First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee-based watchdog group that keeps track of information related to the state’s public records laws.

Rizzo and her daughters had filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Orange County Sheriff John Mina and the District Nine Medical Examiner’s Office. Both agencies are handling the investigation after Saget, 65, the star of “Full House,” was found dead Jan. 9 in his hotel room at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes.

The suit was filed in response to media outlets’ filing public records requests for specific documents related to the investigation, including photographs, video and audio recordings, as well as what the suit referred to as "statutorily protected autopsy information."

Saget’s family argued in their suit that “no legitimate public interest would be served by the release or dissemination of the Records to the public.” Their lawsuit came days after it was revealed that Saget died of head trauma. The family said in a statement that officials concluded that he accidentally hit the back of his head on something and went to sleep, noting that no drugs or alcohol were involved.

Wednesday's ruling surprised Dr. Stephen Nelson, the chair of the Florida Medical Examiners Commission and the chief medical examiner in an adjoining Central Florida district. Nelson said that while photos and videos are exempt under Florida law, an autopsy report isn't.

“The only records that wouldn't be exempt would be the autopsy report, toxicology report and things like that. ... I’m surprised the judge could countermand state law,” Nelson said. “Anything that we do that’s paid for with taxpayer dollars is a public record, except for those things for which there are a public records exemption: photographs, video and audio recordings."

Earnhardt crash led to new law

Before 2001, everything related to death investigations was public record in Florida. But state lawmakers passed legislation that year making exemptions after Earnhardt's death, at the urging of his family and NASCAR. Earnhardt died just days after the Orlando Sentinel published an investigative series on the need for safer head and neck protection devices for race car drivers.

The newspaper wanted experts to review the autopsy evidence to see whether Earnhardt’s death would have been prevented with the safety devices. However, following tearful testimony from Earnhardt’s widow, Teresa, who had pleaded with legislators for her family's privacy, then-Gov. Jeb Bush and leaders in the Legislature, who had friendly relationships with NASCAR, passed a law to seal autopsy photo and video records.

The death records pertaining to Earnhardt and Saget aren’t the only ones that have been subject to court challenges. In the 1990s, Florida judges restricted access to the autopsy photos of murdered fashion designer Gianni Versace and the victims of serial killer Danny Rolling.