Posted by John Ager on 17 May 2011.
The cause of death is often a very sharply contested question in medical malpractice death cases. No matter how clear you may think the cause of death of your loved one was, the defendants will usually offer many other causes which they will claim are unrelated to their care. If there has been no autopsy, the difficulty of proving the cause of death may make the difference between a case with a chance for success and one with very little chance for success.
Some deaths are automatically referred to the county medical examiner’s office. They usually involve sudden, unexpected or unexplained deaths. The medical examiner will conduct an autopsy at public expense to determine the cause of death. Deaths following extensive medical care are not usually referred to the medical examiner’s office. Under these circumstances, the attending physician will sign the death certificate and will state his or her opinion as to the cause of death. That description of the cause of death may be very specific or it may be general in nature. Depending on the circumstances and the qualifications of the attending physician, that opinion may be challenged in the event of later litigation. In a lawsuit which may involve more than a million dollars, you don’t want to be forced to rely solely on the death certificate for the cause of death.
If you lose a loved one under circumstances which you believe are suspicious for medical malpractice, you should strongly consider getting a private autopsy, if the case is not one which will be referred to the medical examiner’s office. Don’t let the hospital talk you out of it or scare you with stories about how much it will cost. There are a number of forensic pathologists who offer their services on the internet to conduct private autopsies. The cost of a private autopsy runs anywhere from $2,500.00 to $5,000.00. For litigation purposes, you will usually need a complete autopsy with toxicology testing.
Do not assume that every pathologist is equally well-qualified to perform an autopsy. Ask questions about their background. You want someone who has been trained in forensic pathology and who has substantial experience in performing autopsies.