Postmortem medical examinations, also called autopsies, help families and authorities confirm a person’s manner of death. Police departments, medical professionals, or families might ask for one when someone’s death is unexpected, its cause is unclear, or the person died under mysterious circumstances. Understandably, family members might pursue a wrongful death claim when a loved one dies due to another person’s negligence. Is it necessary to have an autopsy for a wrongful death claim? While not legally required in most instances, it may be beneficial or even essential for proving wrongful death.
Read on to learn more about whether you should have an autopsy when filing a wrongful death claim.
Circumstances Where California Law Mandates Autopsies Required
California law requires immediately notifying the coroner’s office to conduct an autopsy and confirm the manner of death when someone dies under certain circumstances. Here are a few examples from California Government Code Section 27491 on what causes of death require an autopsy:
- When someone dies a violent death,
- A death where no one else was around,
- Known or suspected suicide,
- Known or suspected accidental poisoning,
- When the death occurs in a state mental hospital,
- When a suspected cause of death is sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS),
- Deaths related to occupational diseases or hazards,
- When the deceased was an alcoholic or suffered from a drug addiction problem, and
- When the suspected manner of death involved a criminal act.
This list is not exhaustive. Reviewing the code section, you can find more circumstances that require an autopsy.
Additionally, coroners should be notified of deaths that fall under certain circumstances. It does not mean the coroner will automatically do an autopsy, only that reporting is required for deaths that result from accidents, injuries, and more. You might also find different rules in the county where your family member died.
The duty to report these deaths to the coroner falls on medical personnel, funeral directors, and anyone who has “charge” of the body.
When Is an Autopsy Needed for a Wrongful Death Claim?
Having an autopsy can be helpful in cases where the defendant’s insurance company is disputing liability. However, what do you do if your family member’s death doesn’t require an autopsy and the coroner has elected not to complete one? If the county or city coroner decides not to conduct an autopsy, family members of the deceased can take the following steps:
- Send a written request to the coroner to conduct an autopsy, or
- Find a forensic pathologist who will agree to perform a private autopsy.
California Government Code Section 27520 (a) sets forth who has the legal right to request an autopsy. A written request can be made by:
- The deceased person’s surviving spouse;
- If there is no surviving spouse, then a surviving child or parent; or
- The next of kin if there is no surviving spouse, child, or parent.
Submitting a written request doesn’t guarantee the coroner will conduct an autopsy, even if you say it’s a necessary autopsy for a claim related to wrongful death. If the coroner denies your request, you must look for someone who conducts private autopsies. Private forensic pathologists have no affiliation with coroners’ offices. However, you’ll likely find some have former experience as medical examiners for city or county coroners’ offices.
Private autopsies are not free. The person requesting the autopsy is responsible for payment. This service could cost several thousand dollars or more.
What If a Family Member Doesn’t Want an Autopsy?
In some situations, family members might not want an autopsy for a wrongful death claim, even if it helps prove liability. Some people have strong religious beliefs, and an autopsy goes against their religion. California is one of the only states that allows an exemption to required autopsies, and religious beliefs is the only exemption allowed. However, the deceased must have completed a Certificate of Religious Belief before they died.
The certificate of religious exemption is not an absolute bar either. The coroner can petition the court and might have the right to perform an autopsy under the law.
Should You Ask for an Autopsy When It’s Not Mandatory?
After reading this post, you might be wondering whether you should ask for an autopsy to help prove wrongful death. Remember, not every autopsy will support a claim for damages against a negligent party. There’s always the chance the autopsy might reveal other health conditions that point away from wrongful death. It’s important to remember it’s possible to prove liability without having the autopsy report.
If you need assistance with a wrongful death claim in California and have questions about autopsy reports, Silva Injury Law is here to help. We have years of experience assisting surviving family members in pursuing wrongful death claims in California. Contact our office to schedule a consultation to learn more about whether you need an autopsy for a wrongful death claim.
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