Florida trial lawyer and medical malpractice lawyer, Guy S. DiMartino, DC, JD, discusses whether a family member should get an autopsy after an accidental death or malpractice.
Many people do not discuss the issue of whether they would want their loved ones to get an autopsy after an accidental death or alleged medical malpractice before the event so this is the last thing a grieved family member wants to think about. Many times the decision to get an autopsy has to be made immediately after death. Some deaths will go the medical examiner's office for autopsy in others family members will have to get a private autopsy.
What is an Autopsy?
An autopsy is a post-mortem examination of the decedent. The type of doctor that performs an autopsy is a pathologist or medical examiner. The pathologist will perform the following exams:
- visual inspection of the outside of the decedent's body
- visual inspection of the inside of the decedent's body
- visual inspection of each organ system
- microscopic examination of each organ system
- sampling of body fluids
- specific lab tests depending on the decedent's medical history and findings on exam
Why get an Autopsy?
The number one reason to get an autopsy is to establish a cause(s) of death. In the personal injury or medical malpractice wrongful death case – one of the required elements of the claim is showing that the negligence caused or substantially contributed to the death. Sometimes the autopsy will be able to establish the exact cause of death and link it back to the accident or malpractice. Other times the autopsy will be inconclusive or will not establish the cause of death.
Let me provide you an example to illustrate a point. A medical malpractice claim is filed because the doctor failed to timely diagnosis and treat a heart attack. The clinical record establishes that the patient had a heart attack. He had EKG (electrocardiograph) changes and a positive blood test showing damage to the heart muscle. An autopsy is performed and the autopsy shows some problem with the coronary arteries (arteries that carry blood to the heart to feed the heart and the arteries that cause a heart attack). The microscopic examination of the heart tissue is inconclusive because the heart cells will only show microscopic changes in a small number of cases and the slides usually need special stains and have to be reviewed by pathologists who specialize in cardiac tissue. In this case, an autopsy will not be helpful to the family and can just confuse the issue.
Whether to get an autopsy after a loved one dies is a personal issue. Many times families are in shock and they do not want anything else done to their loved one. There is no right answer. I always respect the family's requests and desires in this instance and an autopsy may not assist the prosecution of a wrongful death case.
If you have any questions about a Florida wrongful death cause arising out of an accident, medical malpractice or nursing home abuse, you can call me directly on my cell at (352) 267-9168 or fill out the internet consultation form on the right.
* photo attribution: http://apps.pathology.jhu.edu/blogs/pathology/new-autopsy-suite