Is an Autopsy Important for my Pennsylvania Medical Malpractice Case?

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Yes – Pennsylvania medical malpractice and wrongful death lawsuits often hinge on the results of an autopsy.  This is because the exact cause of death is the starting point for your medical malpractice lawyer to figure out what mistakes were made that led to the outcome.  Successful prosecution of a medical malpractice wrongful death lawsuit becomes nearly impossible if the cause of the patient’s death is unclear or unknown.

Remember, in every medical malpractice lawsuit, the patient or patient’s family has the burden of proving

  1. That there was a medical mistake;
  2. That the medical mistake was a cause of a medical injury or death; and
  3. That an injury or death actually occurred.

As you can see, if no one knows what caused the patient’s death, then you cannot prove your medical malpractice case.

What is an autopsy?

An autopsy is an examination of a dead person.  The purpose of an autopsy is to discover the cause of death.  An autopsy is performed by a medical examiner who is often a forensic pathologist doctor who specializes in determining the cause of death.

Are autopsies required by Pennsylvania law?

Yes, but only if your county’s coroner investigates the patient’s death and determines that it meets the criteria for a legally required autopsy to determine the exact cause of death.

When Must the Coroner Investigate a Death?

Under the law of Pennsylvania, the coroner of your county has a duty to investigate the facts and circumstances of a patient’s death for the purpose of determining whether an autopsy should be conducted in the following situations:

  1. A sudden death, the cause of which cannot be properly determined by a doctor based on the patient’s recent medical care.
  2. A death that occurred under “suspicious” circumstances. This is a broad basis for an autopsy that is often triggered when the dead person may have recently ingested alcohol, drugs or other toxic substances.
  3. Deaths occurring as a result of violence or trauma. For example, your coroner is likely to order an autopsy when the death appears to have been caused by an intentional act, suicide or accident from events like car crash trauma, crushing events, burns, freezing, drowning, falls, explosions or electrical events.
  4. Deaths in which a drug overdose or reaction to a drug or medication or medical treatment was a factor that contributed to or played a role in the cause of death. This can be the basis for which a coroner is compelled to order an autopsy in any case where medical negligence may have played a role in the death.
  5. Deaths that occur during a medical surgery that are not easily explained by the patient’s prior condition. In any case where a patient dies during surgery, the patient’s family should urge to coroner to conduct an autopsy.
  6. A death known or suspected to be due to contagious disease and constituting a public hazard. For example, a patient who died from Tuberculosis or MRSA, even when the medical staff is uncertain of the connection, should cause a coroner to order an autopsy.
  7. A sudden or unexplained infant death. For example, if your newborn died while in the NICU, the coroner should order an autopsy.
  8. All stillbirths should result in a coroner-ordered autopsy.

What if the Coroner does not order an autopsy?

If the coroner decides not to order an autopsy you may arrange for your own private autopsy to be performed.  If you believe that medical malpractice may have contributed to your loved one’s or friend’s death then we highly recommend you contact a forensic pathologist to conduct a private autopsy. 

The best way to find a forensic pathologist is to ask your funeral director.  Alternatively, you can ask to speak with the patient’s hospital’s forensic pathologist and ask that doctor for a referral to a pathologist capable of performing a private autopsy.

Make sure to contact your county’s coroner yourself if the patient died under suspicious circumstances but the hospital failed to arrange a coroner’s investigation.

The law in Pennsylvania gives the coroner the authority and discretion to perform an autopsy at the request of a dead person’s family.

Should I request an autopsy if the Coroner has not ordered one?

If you have any question about the cause of death or mistakes which may have resulted in death then the answer is “yes”.  We have handled many medical malpractice lawsuits that were won based on the findings of the autopsy.  On the other hand, we have had to decline to handle many potential medical malpractice lawsuits because an autopsy was not performed.

Who Pays for an Autopsy?

That depends on who requests the autopsy.  If the coroner, following an investigation, decides to order an autopsy then the county or state pays the full cost of the autopsy.  If, however, an autopsy is not ordered by the coroner then the person who orders the autopsy is responsible for the cost.  For example, if your loved one dies but the coroner does not order an autopsy and you arrange for a private autopsy, you will have to pay for the service.

How Much Does an Autopsy Cost?

A private autopsy performed by a forensic pathologist typically costs between $3,000 – $6,000.

While this is a lot of money, there are two ways to potentially defray the cost. 

First, you may be able to use funds from the deceased person’s estate to pay for the autopsy. 

Second, if the facts leading up to the death are sufficient, a medical malpractice law firm may advance the cost of the autopsy.  For example, there have been several instances where we have paid for an autopsy based on the facts explained to us by the patient’s family.

Can an autopsy be done without my permission?

Yes, but only if your county’s coroner decides that an autopsy should be performed.  The law in Pennsylvania states, “If, after investigation, the coroner is unable to determine the cause and manner of death, the coroner shall perform or order an autopsy on the body.” This means that the coroner must have an autopsy performed when the cause of an investigated death cannot be determined.

What Happens After an Autopsy?

After a medical examiner or pathologist has performed an autopsy, a report of the autopsy findings and conclusions as to the cause of death will be created.  You can obtain a copy of the autopsy report by requesting it from the coroner.  Alternatively, if a private autopsy was performed, the pathologist will send the autopsy report of their findings and conclusions to you and/or your lawyer.

If you have questions about Pennsylvania medical malpractice lawsuits and specifically how or whether to obtain an autopsy, please contact us or call us at (412) 281-4100 and ask to speak with one of our medical malpractice attorneys.

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