As a Florida fatal accident lawyer, I receive lots of questions about what should happen immediately after any fatal accident. Many people who have recently suffered the death of a spouse or other family member wonder whether they must insist on having an autopsy performed to maintain an action for wrongful death. The answer is that most of the time an autopsy is absolutely critical to proving a wrongful death case, although not technically (legally) required. In other words, Florida’s wrongful death statute does not require an autopsy, but proving the cause of death can be next to impossible without autopsy results. (In some rare cases, the cause of death may be known and provable without an autopsy, such as when extensive tests (for example radiology or blood tests) or medical procedures (such as surgeries) were performed immediately before the person died.)
What Is An Autopsy?
An autopsy is a thorough medical examination by a physician (M.D.) called a forensic pathologist (physicians trained in the study of diseases and abnormalities). They carefully examine the body, both internally and externally, in their attempt to determine the cause of death. These examinations may include various forms of testing (not just visual examination) along with microscopic examination of certain tissues and organs.
Why Is An Autopsy Usually Necessary To Prove Wrongful Death In Court?
When an attorney evaluates a wrongful death claim, they must first determine the cause of death. The person might have been under the care of a physician who performed numerous, obvious medical errors. However, those violations of the standard of care would be totally irrelevant in a wrongful death lawsuit if they did not cause the person to die. As an example, let’s say that a physician failed to detect an illness that would have been fatal if left untreated, but could have been treated if detected (like diagnosing treatable cancer too late or failing to detect toxic levels of some poisonous substance). And let’s further say that we can prove those things (perhaps through medical test results performed when the person was alive). But then let’s say the person died suddenly, earlier than expected based on the typical progression of a known illness, such as cancer. How can we know that the person did not die from a sudden aneurism, and not whatever illness or other condition the physician failed to diagnose? In other words, if the physician committed numerous deviations from the standard of care that did not cause death, then even known violations of the standard of care are totally meaningless. (Please note that an autopsy is not always required to prove wrongful death, such as where a person is diagnosed with cancer too late, despite having presented with known symptoms at an earlier time (and having a cancer treatable in the early stages, like melanoma) and then has clear progression through the illness leading to death.)
How Can An Autopsy Help A Wrongful Death Case?
An autopsy provides almost certain evidence of the cause of death and the findings from an autopsy are much more definitive regarding the cause of death than a death certificate. If you have ever read any death certificates, you might know that one of the most common causes of death written death certificates is “cardiopulmonary arrest.” In other words, the death certificate tells us that the person’s heart stopped beating, which, of course, we already know. So death certificates are most often completely useless in determining the cause of death.
On the other hand, during an autopsy, a physician thoroughly examines every part of the body, including microscopic examination of areas of the body that give excellent clues regarding the cause of death, such as a blocked coronary artery, or an aneurism. Once we know exactly what caused the death, by way of the pathology and/or toxicology reports produced after an autopsy, we can combine that information with the factual circumstances surrounding the death (such as the clinical history revealed in medical records) to very accurately determine the cause of death in the overwhelming majority of all cases.
What Is The Next Question After A Wrongful Death Attorney Learns The Cause Of Death?
After we know the cause of death, the next questions are: (1) whether the death was preventable (although most deaths are preventable in hindsight); and (2) critically, whether the negligence of another person or entity, or a deviation from the standard of care by any medical provider, caused the death. These questions are impossible to answer in many cases unless we first know the cause of death.
If I Get An Autopsy, Can I File A Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Here’s some unfortunate news. If you choose to have an autopsy performed on your loved one, you may ultimately learn that you do not have a case for wrongful death. In other words, you may learn that your loved one died from natural causes. But autopsy results may still give you much needed emotional closure when you strongly suspect that someone else caused the death of your loved one. You will either confirm your suspicions (in which case you can seek justice and potentially help prevent others from suffering the same fate) or you will gain the peace of knowing that no one hastened your loved one’s death. In cases where the autopsy shows that someone died of natural causes, or any cause not related to the negligence of another person or entity, a wrongful death lawsuit cannot be sustained.
What If You Object To An Optional Autopsy On Religious, Emotional, Or Moral Grounds?
Having an autopsy performed may be an intensely emotional decision for many people. Others may object on religious or moral grounds. Of course, these objections are totally understandable. To make matters worse, loved ones often must make this sometimes difficult decision very shortly after death (for example, if the decedent is going to be cremated), when they are going through the most intense phase of grieving, and typically in shock. Unfortunately, if you suspect that the negligence of a medical provider (or other person or entity) caused the death of your loved one, very often wrongful death attorneys simply must have autopsy reports or they cannot even investigate much less accept your potential wrongful death case. Additionally, a wrongful death can have serious financial repercussions for the entire family. So, if at all possible, try to think about the long-term financial benefit that a successful wrongful death lawsuit might bring to your family.