Autopsies: Difficult but Necessary

Autopsies are important. It’s an off-putting thought, a subject nobody wants to consider, but if you have lost a loved one due to medical malpractice, an autopsy is vital. We get many, many calls from grieving family members about cases of medical malpractice, but often the matter cannot proceed because, if an autopsy was not performed, there is simply not enough evidence to build a case. This can also be true for truck and auto accident cases and product liability.

Often people assume that autopsies are a sort of automatic process- i.e. if an autopsy is needed, it will be performed. Alternatively, some people assume that autopsies are just for investigative work in the criminal field, and that “regular” people never need one. Neither of these assumptions is true. In general, if your loved one dies and you believe it was the result of medical malpractice, you should have an autopsy performed. You should also have one performed if your loved one’s death is caused by a trucking or car crash, or a faulty product. Sometimes there is no other way to definitively prove the specific cause of someone’s death. You can either call a reputable attorney, who can advise you on how to proceed, or you can call the medical examiner for your county and arrange matters with him or her directly.

There are, of course, many reasons why an autopsy might not normally be performed. The hospital is unlikely to suggest one, as it will only provide evidence against them in the case of malpractice. In fact, the doctor or hospital in question may actually tell you that you don’t need to get one. In the case of product liability or a vehicle crash, usually it will be up to you, because the hospital has no reason to suggest one. Certainly, any family or friends of a medical patient who dies in such a situation will be devastated and grieving – an autopsy is not likely to be on anyone’s mind. And the expense can be considerable (in Georgia, right now, the cost would be roughly four thousand dollars). It seems gruesome to think about autopsies when a loved one has so recently passed away. But you should make an effort to make it happen regardless of the circumstances, because otherwise you will have no recourse, whether you are looking for justice for your loved one, or the financial means to deal with medical bills and final expenses. The effort required to make sure that an autopsy is performed is worth it, when you balance it against a lifetime of struggling to reconcile the feelings of regret and helplessness about your situation.

Why is an autopsy so essential? Basically, in any case resulting in a person’s death, you need evidence. The doctor’s notes will not likely be of much help in proving malpractice, for the simple reason that if a doctor misses something or makes a mistake, it won’t be in the notes. The death certificate, too, is not always a help. The cause of death may be too general or be a complication of the malpractice, rather than the malpractice itself. We often get calls from potential clients whose doctors expressed regret or admitted to or apologized for their errors, but that information is hearsay. It will be your word against the doctor’s, and that, again, is not evidence. You can be certain that the lawyers for the medical facility where the malpractice occurred, and the lawyers for the insurance companies involved, will prevent any such admission from the doctor once legal proceedings have begun. And for deaths resulting from accidents, an autopsy is often the only way to determine what really happened. For instance, in a recent case of ours, the client broke her ankle in a wreck. Three weeks later, she died of a resulting blood clot that traveled to her heart. The autopsy proved that the original wreck was the cause of death; without the autopsy, it would have appeared that the pulmonary embolism blood clot to the heart and lungs had nothing to do with the car accident. As a result of the evidence provided by the autopsy, a seven-figure settlement against the negligent driver was obtained for our client’s sole surviving daughter, to help allay the overwhelming medical costs and emotional trauma.

So what should you do? Well, time is of the essence. Despite the feeling that it’s inappropriate or “just a bad time,” you need to make sure, quickly, that the wheels are set in motion to perform an autopsy. Otherwise, other arrangements may be made for the body, and then it will be too late. As mentioned above, you can contact a qualified attorney, who will be able to advise you on exactly how to proceed, or you can call the county medical examiner to make arrangements yourself. Because of the cost (and emotional effort) involved, we recommend that you go the attorney route, because an attorney with many years of experience in such matters may be able to tell you right away if there are other factors that make it unlikely that yours is a good case. In that situation, it’s unfortunate that you won’t be able to pursue the case, but it also means that you can be spared the trouble and expense of the autopsy. For example, there are some factors that, in an emotional state, you may perceive as malpractice, but which are, in fact, recognized and accepted risks of the medical procedure your loved one undertook. However, in any case where there is a legitimate cause to sue someone for malpractice or a product liability death, you do need the autopsy, and as we mentioned previously, there are many cases of auto or truck accidents where the autopsy provides the evidence that makes or breaks the case.

Often, too, people have personal concerns about autopsies: that they are inappropriate, that they will interfere with funeral arrangements, et cetera. All we can tell you is that autopsies are performed for the purpose of finding the truth, and there’s nothing inappropriate about that. Your loved one would surely want for you to have all the help that you can get in pursuing answers. If someone made an error, behaved with disregard for your loved one’s safety, or was negligent in the care of your loved one, there are safeguards in place to help you and, in some small measure, help alleviate your loss. Medical facilities and practitioners have malpractice insurance for this very reason, and the same is true of liability insurance for companies that manufacture faulty products, or automobile insurance for at-fault drivers and trucking companies. There is no reason not to pursue a valid case and get the justice and financial compensation you deserve.

If this information is useful to you, then we are very sorry for your loss, and hope that we may be of assistance to you. Attorney E. Marcus “Marc” Davis has been winning cases for clients who have lost loved ones due to the negligence of others for over 35 years, and has a vast network of experts, medical and otherwise, to use in your case. We can help you manage the financial aspects of your case as well. We understand that this is a very difficult time, but you don’t have to do this alone. Please call our office today if we can be of help to you.