Is an Autopsy Necessary in a Wrongful Death Claim?

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Is an Autopsy Necessary in a Wrongful Death Claim?

Introduction: Does a Plaintiff Need an Autopsy in a Wrongful Death Case?


autopsy room to perform a necessary autopsy in a wrongful death caseIs an autopsy necessary in a wrongful death claim?  The short answer is that, while it may not be a required legal element of a claim, an autopsy is crucial in proving most wrongful death cases…

The number of autopsies performed in the United States has drastically declined over the years. In the 1950’s, approximately 50% of deaths that occurred in a hospital setting resulted in an autopsy. Currently, autopsies are performed for only about 5% of patients who die in hospitals.

Why is it that, decades ago, autopsies were so prevalent and now they are virtually non-existent? Hospitals and doctors used to initiate and request autopsies themselves. However, in numerous cases, those autopsies revealed information that showed negligent treatment on the part of hospitals and physicians, and lawsuits ensued. Indeed, depending on the findings, an autopsy can be the proverbial “smoking gun” evidence showing that someone’s mistake resulted in a deceased person’s death. Of course, an autopsy can also show that nobody is at fault and that the death was not preventable. Nevertheless, the risk is always there. So, now, healthcare providers prefer to keep quiet and essentially stay away from autopsies as much as possible.

As discussed below, if the coroner makes a decision to perform an autopsy or a family arranges for a private autopsy, there is nothing hospitals, doctors and other potentially negligent individuals and entities can do to avoid an autopsy. The problem arises when the coroner rejects the case and the family is not aware that it has an option to request a private autopsy. Many legal claims cannot be pursued because, without an autopsy, there is insufficient evidence to prove that the death was caused by someone’s negligence.

The purpose of this discussion is to provide information about what an autopsy is and what options families and the next of kin have when they suspect that their loved one’s death was caused by someone else’s misconduct.


What is an Autopsy?


An autopsy is a procedure where a dead person’s body is medically examined by dissection in order to evaluate and determine the manner, circumstances, and cause of death. The origin of the term “autopsy” is the Ancient Greek word “autopsia”, which means “to see with one’s own eyes.” This procedure is also referred to by other terms such as:

  • “necropsy”;
  • “post-mortem examination”;
  • “obduction”; and
  • “autopsia cadaverum”.

In general, an autopsy is performed when a person dies under suspicious circumstances or when the cause of death is not clearly evident. The primary purpose of an autopsy is to determine the cause of death.


Are there Different Types of Autopsies?


Autopsies are performed for various reasons and in different settings, which affects the terminology used to refer to these procedures. The following are the most common types of autopsies:

  • Forensic Autopsy is the most appropriate procedure for the purposes of a lawsuit. It is performed in a medical-legal setting by the coroner or a private forensic pathologist. The goal of this autopsy is to determine the circumstances, manner, and cause of death.
  • Clinical Autopsy is performed for medical, as opposed to legal, reasons. Its goal is to evaluate the cause of death, explore injuries and medical conditions that may not have been diagnosed during the person’s lifetime, and evaluate the efficacy of surgical procedures and medical treatment.
  • Academic Autopsy is utilized at academic institutions (e.g. medical schools) for research and teaching purposes. These autopsies are frequently performed in the presence of students or researchers. If the procedure is being observed, it is called an “Observational Autopsy”.
  • Exhumation Autopsy refers to situations when a deceased person has already been buried, and the body needs to be removed from the grave for examination purposes. Such procedures are very rare. In addition, the process of tissue decomposition severely impacts the accuracy of exhumation autopsies.
  • Complete Autopsy involves a full external examination of the body, and an evaluation of all major organs.
  • Partial Autopsy, just as its name suggests, refers to an examination of certain selected organs, tissues, or parts of the deceased person’s body. This procedure is not sufficient in a legal case, because the part(s) of the body that would actually reveal the cause of death may end up not being examined.
  • Second Autopsy is done when there is a need for a “second opinion” by another forensic pathologist. However, after the first autopsy, the body may be missing certain organs, tissue, as well as bodily fluids and blood. Therefore, the scope and usefulness of such an examination is severely limited.


Who Performs Autopsies?


An autopsy is almost always performed by a forensic pathologist – a medical doctor whose specialty is to determine the cause of death. Forensic pathology is a sub-specialty of clinical pathology, which focuses on the diagnosis of conditions and diseases based on an examination of bodily fluids and tissue.

Each local jurisdiction in the United States (cities and counties) has an appointed or elected government official with the power and the responsibility to inquire, investigate, and determine the manner, circumstances, and cause of death. This official is called a “coroner”. While many coroners are licensed forensic pathologists, a coroner is not always required to be a medical doctor. Some coroners have education and training in the fields of anatomy, physiology, pathology, forensic science and criminology.

The person who actually performs autopsies at a coroner’s office is a medical examiner – a medical doctor trained as a forensic pathologist. The terms “coroner” and “medical examiner” are often used interchangeably (including this discussion). In some jurisdictions, both terms are used in the name of the coroner’s office. One of these examples is the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner.


How is an Autopsy Performed?


Forensic pathologists and scientists agree that the best time to perform an autopsy is during the first 24 hours after death (i.e. before the process of deterioration and decomposition starts). However, if necessary, autopsies can be performed on embalmed, exhumed, and decomposed bodies. In such cases, body examinations can provide somewhat limited but still valuable information.

An autopsy is typically performed in the following steps:




This incision is entitled the “Y-Incision” because of its resemblance to the letter “Y”. A forensic pathologist makes cuts from both shoulders to the lower part of the sternum and, afterwards, continues the cut down in a straight line through the abdomen and to the pubic area. This specific incision is utilized in order to gain access to the lungs, heart, stomach, kidneys, pancreas, spleen, and other major organs.


Organ Removal and Examination


Once the Y-Incision is completed, all organs are carefully removed. Then, the organs are weighed and examined. The weight of the removed organs is important. Some medical conditions and diseases can lead to an increase or reduction in the weight of certain organs (e.g. the heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, etc.). Some situations may require that the organs be removed in a particular sequence. The visual appearance of the organs can provide significant information regarding medical conditions or illnesses that the deceased person may have had.


Examination of Stomach Contents


Then, the forensic pathologist examines the abdomen and its contents. This part of the autopsy shows the deceased person’s last meal and the approximate time when that meal had been consumed in relation to the time of death. The body takes time to digest food and move it through the digestive tract. Therefore, the time of death can be accurately estimated depending on whether the food in the stomach is fully digested, partially digested, or not digested at all.


Collection of Samples


After the examination of the stomach contents, various tissue and fluid samples are taken for analysis as follows:

  • tissue samples are taken for microscopic evaluation (pieces of tissue are cut into very thin segments and placed on slides to be evaluated under the microscope);
  • blood samples are collected for various potential tests, including DNA testing and toxicology; and
  • samples of urine, vitreous (eye) fluid, and gallbladder bile are obtained for toxicology analysis because some drugs and poisons tend to accumulate in these bodily fluids (as opposed to blood).


Examination of Head and Brain


Another step in the performance of an autopsy is the examination of the head and brain. First, the forensic pathologist examines the head for any obvious external signs of a head injury. Then, a triangular incision is made across the top of the scalp. This is done in order to visualize the brain and its surrounding anatomical structures. Thereafter, the pathologist removes the brain for a complete examination. At that point, samples of the brain tissue can be collected as well.


Concluding Steps


At the conclusion of an autopsy, the forensic pathologist carefully places all removed organs back into the deceased person’s body and closes the incisions.


What is an Autopsy Report?


Following an autopsy, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy prepares a formal report regarding the findings. This report is called an “autopsy report”. In general, each autopsy report has the following components:

  • a conclusion regarding the cause of death;
  • an overall medical opinion based on the autopsy findings;
  • a summary of any special procedures performed during or before the autopsy such as:
    • x-rays or other imaging studies (CT scans or MRI imaging);
    • photographs;
    • collection of body liquids, including blood or vitreous fluid (colorless fluid between the retina and the lens of an eye);
    • retention of entire organs or samples of organ tissue for examination;
  • a summary of all pertinent findings;
  • microscopic findings regarding organ and tissue samples;
  • laboratory reports (lab reports) regarding toxicology and other chemical analyses;
  • imaging findings (x-rays, etc.);
  • a description of an external examination of the deceased person’s body, including:
    • an overall description of the body such as the age, body length and weight;
    • the state of preservation of the body, including:
      • rigor mortis [stiffening of the body’s muscles and joints several hours after death] and
      • lividity [a skin discoloration of bluish, purple, or reddish color that occurs because of post-death pooling and settling of blood];
    • skin;
    • head (face, eyes, ears, nasal passages, mouth, lips, teeth, and tongue);
    • neck;
    • chest;
    • back;
    • extremities;
    • anus and genital organs;
  • a description of an internal examination, including:
    • neck;
    • chest;
    • abdominal cavities;
    • musculoskeletal system (bones and skeletal musculature);
    • cardiovascular system (heart and coronary arteries);
    • respiratory system (lungs, bronchial passages, and airways);
    • gastrointestinal system (esophagus, stomach, colon, and pancreas);
    • hepatobiliary system (liver and peripheral lymph nodes);
    • urinary system (kidneys, ureters, and bladder);
    • genital system (male or female);
    • lymphatic system (thymus, spleen, lymph nodes, and bone marrow);
    • endocrine system (thyroid gland, parathyroid glands, adrenals, and pituitary gland);
    • special senses (eyes, middle and inner ear);
    • head and central nervous system (skull and dura, sinuses, brain, and cerebrospinal fluid); and
      spinal cord.

Overall, the autopsy report describes in detail the procedure itself, as well as the medical diagnoses in conjunction with microscopic, laboratory and imaging findings. When pre-death medical information is available (such as medical records containing reports of physicians’ evaluations, radiographic imaging studies, and laboratory tests), this information is correlated with the actual pathologic evaluation made during the autopsy.

Considering the complexity and the level of detail of autopsy reports, the preparation of a report may take considerable time. It may take a period ranging from a few weeks to several months for an autopsy report to be available. If an autopsy involves any toxicology testing (testing for the presence of poison or drugs in the deceased person’s blood), it may result in further delays. Once an autopsy report is prepared and signed, it is either automatically provided to the family or is available upon request.


When is the Coroner Required to Investigate and Determine the Cause of Death?


In some circumstances, the coroner is required by law to make a cause of death determination. In other situations, despite the absence of any laws mandating reports, specific county coroner’s offices encourage reporting of certain deaths for an investigation and evaluation.


Circumstances Where the Law Requires a Decision by the Coroner


California law requires that, under certain circumstances, deaths have to be immediately reported to the coroner. In those cases, the coroner must make an inquiry into and a determination regarding the manner, circumstances and cause of death.

Under California Government Code § 27491, the coroner has a duty to make an inquiry and a determination with respect to the manner, circumstances, and cause of all deaths that happen under the following circumstances:

  • violent deaths
  • unusual or sudden deaths
  • unattended deaths
  • homicides (known or suspected)
  • suicides (known or suspected)
  • accidental poisoning (known or suspected)
  • rape (known or alleged)
  • crimes against nature (known or alleged)
  • where, during the 20 days prior to death, the deceased person had not been attended by a physician or a hospice nurse
  • circumstances involving suspected or known criminal abortion or self-induced abortion
  • where the cause of death is known or suspected to be partially or completely related to an injury or an accident (regardless of whether the injury or accident is recent or old)
  • deaths that occur because of the following:
    • stabbing
    • hanging
    • gunshot
    • drowning
    • cutting
    • starvation
    • fire
    • acute alcoholism
    • drug addiction
    • strangulation
    • aspiration
    • exposure
    • occupational diseases
    • occupational hazards
  • suspected sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
  • cases where death is partially or completely caused by “criminal means”
  • deaths that occur in prison (or when the deceased person is under a sentence)
  • deaths caused by contagious diseases that constitute a public hazard (known or suspected)
  • when a patient dies in a state mental hospital
  • deaths of patients of state hospitals, which serve developmentally disabled individuals
  • circumstances where a death is reported by a physician or another individual who knows that a coroner’s inquiry is necessary
  • when there is a reasonable suspicion that the death was caused by a criminal act.

Per California Government Code § 27491(c), if it is necessary for the purposes of determining the cause of death, the coroner has the right to perform an exhumation of a deceased person’s body [a removal of a buried person from the ground].

If any of the above-described deaths occur under “natural circumstances”, California Government Code § 27491(b) gives the coroner the discretion to make a determination regarding the extent and scope of the inquiry. Specifically, the coroner has the discretion to authorize a physician to sign the death certificate under the following conditions: when the inquiry shows that the deceased person’s physician has sufficient knowledge to “reasonably state” that the death occurred “under natural circumstances”.

If a death falls under any of the above-listed circumstances, the duty to immediately notify the coroner is placed on physicians, funeral directors, as well as other persons who have “charge” of a deceased individual’s body. In fact, under California Government Code § 27491(d), any failure to make the required notification to the coroner can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor.

Additionally, pursuant to California Health & Safety Code § 102850, the coroner must be notified of deaths that occur under these circumstances:

  • after an accident
  • after an injury
  • a suspected suicide
  • when a person dies without the presence of any medical personnel
  • where a healthcare provider (a surgeon, physician, or physician assistant) does not have the ability to state the cause of death
  • when the death occurs during the period of “continued absence” of a surgeon or an attending physician
  • when there is a reasonable suspicion that the death was caused by a criminal activity

Under the above circumstances, the duty to notify the coroner is placed on funeral directors, surgeons, physicians, physician assistants, and other individuals who have “charge of a body”. Similarly to California Government Code section 27491, the failure to make a report to the coroner can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor.


Circumstances Where a Report to the Coroner Should be Made (Even Though it is Not Required by Law)


Some circumstances are not explicitly spelled out in California law as requiring a report to the coroner and the coroner’s decision. Nevertheless, these cases may present problems or difficulties in determining the cause of death. Therefore, the coroner may encourage reporting of some additional situations. For example, the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner – Coroner indicates that the following circumstances “should be reported” for a decision:

  • when a person dies during the period of 24 hours of being admitted to the hospital (unless a natural cause of death is determined by the attending physician)
  • when a physician does not attend to a deceased person during the 24 hours preceding the time of death (unless a natural cause of death is determined by the attending physician)
  • all deaths of unidentified individuals (unless a natural cause of death is determined by the attending physician)
  • all deaths which are known or suspected to be caused by a “misadventure” during a procedure, surgery, therapy, or anesthetic under these circumstances:
    • during a surgery (in operating rooms)
    • during the 24-hour period after a surgery
    • during therapeutic procedures
    • during diagnostic procedures
    • due to post-operative complications (for example, infections)
    • when a patient has not regained consciousness after anesthesia
  • when a patient arrives to a hospital in a coma and remains comatose throughout the course of hospitalization (unless a natural disease can be definitively attributed to the cause of the coma)
  • deaths involving hip fractures (if the hip fracture is determined by the attending physician to be the cause of death or a contributing factor)
  • all deaths where an accident or an injury (recent or old in relation to the time of death) is the cause of death or a contributing factor including, but not limited to, the following:
    • comas
    • subdural hematomas
    • fractures
    • paraplegia
    • quadriplegia
    • seizure disorders.

Based on the guidelines by the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner – Coroner, under the above circumstances, the report should be made by the healthcare provider or another person who has the “most knowledge” regarding the circumstances of death.


Does the Coroner Always Perform an Autopsy?


The coroner does not automatically perform autopsies in all reported and investigated cases. If the circumstances of death fall within the parameters described in California Government Code § 27491 above, then an autopsy is more likely to be performed by the coroner.

Nevertheless, in California, the coroner has the discretion to perform an autopsy in those cases where it is necessary for the evaluation of the manner and cause of death. If the law does not require an autopsy, and the coroner makes the decision that the autopsy is not needed for any further investigation into the cause of death, the coroner can allow a deceased person’s physician to sign a certificate of death without performing an autopsy. Specifically, per California Government Code § 27491(b), where a physician has enough knowledge regarding the circumstances of death to reasonably declare that the person died of natural causes, the physician can sign the death certificate. Such certificates are commonly referred to as “physician certified” death certificates.


What are the Family’s Options if the Coroner Refuses to Perform an Autopsy?


If a county or city coroner makes a decision not to perform an autopsy, the deceased person’s family can explore the following two options: (1) a written request to the coroner to perform an autopsy and (2) a private autopsy.


Written Autopsy Request to the Coroner


Pursuant to California Government Code § 27520(a), in cases where an autopsy has not been performed (including situations where the coroner made an initial decision not to perform an autopsy), the deceased person’s family can request an autopsy in writing. The request to the coroner can be made by the following family members:

  • a deceased person’s surviving spouse
  • a surviving child or parent (if there is no surviving spouse)
  • the next of kin (if there is no surviving spouse, child, or parent)


Private Autopsy


In some situations, despite a written request, the coroner may still refuse to perform an autopsy. In such cases, the family has only one remaining option – arranging a private autopsy. A private autopsy is performed by a private forensic pathologist who is not affiliated with any coroner’s office. There are multiple experienced forensic pathologists in Los Angeles, and throughout California and the United States, who offer this private service. Some of them are former deputy medical examiners who have performed hundreds of autopsies while working for county or city coroners’ offices.


How Much Does an Autopsy Cost and Who Pays for the Autopsy?


The answer to this question depends on the specific circumstances under which an autopsy was performed:

  • If the coroner performs an autopsy during the course of an investigation where the coroner’s decision is required, the cost of the autopsy is borne by the county, city or state, and the family does not have to pay anything;
  • If an autopsy is performed based on a written request to the coroner pursuant to California Government Code § 27520, the cost of that autopsy is borne by the person who made the request (i.e. by the family of the deceased person). The actual cost depends on the specific coroner’s office, and it varies among different jurisdictions.
  • Private autopsies are always paid for by those who request them. The cost of a private autopsy by a forensic pathologist can range from $3,000 to $5,000 or more. Additional charges may be incurred if the autopsy requires imaging studies, laboratory testing, or a toxicology analysis. Transportation costs may be charged for separately.


Can the Family Object to an Autopsy?


If the coroner determines that the performance of an autopsy is not mandatory, the only reason for a family to request an autopsy would be due to suspicions of some wrongdoing (i.e. a doctor’s negligence in making a wrong diagnosis). Despite these suspicions, the family may still voluntarily decide to forego an autopsy based on religious, moral, emotional, and other grounds.

The question then becomes: what if the coroner does decide to perform an autopsy, but the family has objections to it? Unfortunately, an objection based on religious beliefs is the only objection that California recognizes as a valid objection to an autopsy. The religious belief objection is not absolute and, as discussed below, there are some circumstances when the autopsy is still going to proceed.


Objection to an Autopsy based on Religious Beliefs


The State of California allows a religious objection to an autopsy. Religious objections are governed by California Government Code § 27491.43. The primary mechanism for such an objection is a Certificate of Religious Belief, which must be executed by the deceased person himself or herself during their lifetime. Besides California, there are at least six other states that allow objections to autopsies based on religious beliefs (New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Minnesota, Ohio, and Rhode Island).

Pursuant to California Government Code § 27491.43(b), this certificate must clearly state that the entire autopsy procedure (or some selected components) would be against the person’s religious convictions. In the absence of such a certificate, the deceased person’s family and the next of kin have no independent right to object to an autopsy on religious grounds. Under California Government Code § 27491.43(a), if a valid certificate is presented to the coroner at any time prior to the performance of an autopsy, the coroner is not allowed to perform or order an autopsy.

However, notwithstanding the existence of a valid Certificate of Religious Belief, the coroner still has the right to perform an autopsy if the coroner has a reasonable suspicion that the cause of death was:

  • someone’s criminal act or
  • a contagious disease that constitutes a “public health hazard”.

California Government Code § 27491.43(c).

In other cases, per California Government Code § 27491.43(d)(1)-(3), the coroner may file a petition with the court and: 1) challenge the validity of a certificate of religious belief; or 2) request an order permitting an autopsy despite the existence of a valid certificate. If the certificate was not appropriately executed, the court may set it aside (i.e. order that the certificate is legally invalid and, therefore, has no legal power to stop an autopsy).  Even if the certificate is determined to be valid, the court can still order an autopsy to be performed if the court makes a finding that:

1. the cause of death is not evident; and

2. the public’s interest in allowing the deceased person to exercise his or her religious convictions is outweighed by the public’s interest in determining the exact cause of death.


Moral, Emotional and Other Reasons Against an Autopsy


There can be other reasons why people may be against an autopsy being performed on their loved one. Some people may believe that dissecting a deceased person’s body is morally unacceptable. Others may be emotionally against an autopsy because they are grieving and going through a very traumatic period. Another reason why some families may potentially object to an autopsy is because their loved one had expressed a wish to be cryopreserved (cryogenically frozen for the purposes of a potential future revival).

In California, besides religious beliefs, no other grounds are legally recognized as valid objections to autopsies. Therefore, if the coroner determines that an autopsy is going to be performed, the family’s objections based on moral, emotional, and other non-religious grounds will not be able to stop the autopsy from being performed.


Can One Prove a Wrongful Death Case Without an Autopsy?


In all Wrongful Death cases based on negligence, the plaintiff always has to prove all four of the following elements:

1. Duty to exercise reasonable care;

2. Breach of that duty;

3. Causation; and

4. Damages.

Is an autopsy required in a wrongful death case?  No, having an autopsy is not a required element. Yet, for such claims, the element of causation – i.e. that the defendant’s wrongdoing was the legal cause of the deceased person’s death (and that, in the absence of the defendant’s breach of the duty of reasonable care, the death would not have occurred) – is one of the most important elements. Without proof of causation, the entire case falls as a house of cards. This is where an autopsy becomes crucial. After all, if the cause of death is unknown, it is impossible to prove that someone’s acts or omissions (even if they were erroneous) actually caused the death in question.

In some cases, there is sufficient evidence of causation even in the absence of an autopsy. For example, if a person dies in a fatal motor vehicle accident, the traumatic cause of death is relatively evident and straightforward. Ironically, in cases involving fatal accidents, the coroner is likely to perform an autopsy anyway pursuant to California Government Code § 27491.

At the same time, in circumstances where the legal action is based on Medical Malpractice or Elder Abuse and Neglect, it is an uphill battle to prove causation without an autopsy. In some of these cases, there may be sufficient evidence to establish causation to a reasonable degree of medical probability (which is the required legal standard for proving causation). For instance, a person died at a hospital and, prior to death, he or she was examined by physicians of several specialties and underwent sufficient diagnostic testing (e.g. radiographic imaging, laboratory testing, pathology analysis, etc.) to allow a definitive diagnosis. These are some examples of cases where an autopsy is may not be necessary:

  • A neglected elderly person falls at a nursing home and fractures her hip. She is taken to a hospital, where the acute hip fracture is diagnosed by x-ray and CT scan imaging. The fracture causes the patient to rapidly deteriorate and, within a week, she dies due to the hip fracture.
  • An unsupervised assisted living facility resident with dementia falls and injures his head. He is taken to a hospital, where an acute subdural hematoma is diagnosed by MRI imaging. Due to the patient’s age, an attending neurosurgeon concludes that the patient is not a candidate for a surgery. Several days later, the patient dies because of the severe brain damage caused by the subdural hematoma.

However, if a person died at a hospital but important diagnostic testing had not been performed, an autopsy becomes the key piece of the puzzle in proving the cause of death and, ultimately, the causation element in a lawsuit. If a person died at home, a nursing home, an assisted living facility, or some other non-hospital institution, in the absence of an autopsy, it is essentially impossible to prove causation (unless the person had a known terminal disease such as cancer).

Sadly, there can be ample evidence of obvious and glaring mistakes or even abuse and neglect on the part of the healthcare or care personnel, yet, without an autopsy, there is no way to “connect” the wrongdoing to the deceased person’s death.


Bottom Line: Is an Autopsy Necessary in a Wrongful Death Claim?


Should the Family Request an Autopsy or Not?

If the coroner determines that an autopsy is mandatory, there is nothing much that the family can do to stop it. An objection based on religious beliefs may prevent an autopsy in some cases, but not in all cases. However, what if the coroner either (a) decides that this is “not the coroner’s case” at all or (b) makes an inquiry and, in the coroner’s discretion, determines that a person died of natural causes and a physician is fully capable of certifying the cause of death. This is when the family would face a dilemma: to request an autopsy or not to request it?

If the family has no suspicions of wrongdoing, then there is really no reason to request an autopsy. The decision to request an autopsy (by the coroner or a private autopsy) will arise if the deceased person’s next of kin feel that their loved one passed away because of someone’s negligence. Most frequently, this situation arises in the context of suspected medical malpractice cases.

Medical literature shows that, in twenty to forty percent of cases where patients underwent autopsies, the findings revealed serious treatable conditions that were not diagnosed in the clinical setting prior to the patients’ deaths. This phenomenon occurs despite the increasing use of modern and sophisticated testing modalities such as imaging studies (CT scans, MRI’s, nuclear medicine scans) as well as comprehensive laboratory tests.

An autopsy may demonstrate that a person passed away because of someone’s negligence. In many cases (especially when the coroner decides that an autopsy is mandatory under the circumstances), families do not have any suspicion of wrongdoing at all until they read the autopsy report. For example, the autopsy may show the following: (1) that the deceased person died of a medical condition that his or her healthcare providers failed to timely diagnose and treat in accordance with the standard of care; and (2) had an accurate diagnosis been timely made, the deceased person would have been successfully treated and would have survived. In this situation, without an autopsy, the critical evidence would have been lost forever.

However, it should not be assumed that an autopsy will always be “helpful” in proving a legal case arising out of someone’s death. An autopsy may very well demonstrate that a person’s death was caused by:

  • a medical condition, which was so rare or unlikely for that particular patient that the healthcare providers’ failure to suspect this condition was not a breach of the standard of care (e.g. a rare tumor) or
  • a medical condition, which led to the patient’s death so rapidly that, even with their best efforts, healthcare providers would have had no time to save his or her life (e.g. a massive heart attack or a pulmonary embolism).

In case of such findings, the autopsy may clearly demonstrate that the family has “no case” and cannot sue anyone for their loved one’s death. Even if this occurs, by telling the family what really happened and what truly caused their loved one’s death, an autopsy may still serve an important purpose. Specifically, the autopsy may alleviate suspicions that someone’s wrongdoing caused a loved one’s death and provide closure.

For some families, if an autopsy was not performed and the exact cause of their loved one’s death remains unknown, there may not be sufficient evidence to prove a claim. These families may face challenges in finding an attorney who would be willing to accept and pursue their case. A lawyer may feel deep inside that, had it been performed, an autopsy would have certainly shown that a medical error caused the death of a family’s loved one. However, in the absence of an autopsy, it may be impossible to prove the case.

Frequently, the family does not have the financial ability to pay for a private autopsy, which is perfectly understandable. However, in a huge number of cases, families say that, if they only knew they could request an autopsy, they would have done it!

Even if the coroner refuses to perform an autopsy, there is still a way to find out the cause of death. If a family suspects that someone’s wrongdoing caused their loved one’s death, has no religious, moral, emotional or other objections to an autopsy, and can afford to pay for it – a private autopsy is always an option. The decision whether or not to request an autopsy is ultimately the family’s decision. Nobody else can make that decision …

If you suspect that someone is at fault in causing your loved one’s death, and you would like to discuss your options in terms of requesting an autopsy, please call or fill out an electronic contact form today to request a free consultation. Cherepinskiy Law Firm assists clients throughout California, including Los Angeles, Orange County, as well as Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura Counties.


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