When faced with an unexpected death of a loved one, the next of kin often inquire how to request an autopsy to determine the manner and cause of death. There are circumstances when an autopsy is required by law. In other situations, one can be requested by next of kin. This article will describe what an autopsy is, inform on how to request an autopsy, describe when an autopsy is required by law, and advise on how to get a private autopsy report.
What is an Autopsy?
An autopsy is a medical of an examination of the body that occurs after death. It may be performed for several reasons, including:
- When a suspicious or unexpected death occurs
- When a public health concern, such as an infectious disease outbreak, dictates
- When a physician does not know the cause of death for the death certificate
- When the doctor or next of kin requests an autopsy
In additional to the medical examination, additional testing may include microbiology, toxicology and neuropathology testing. Once all testing is complete, the medical examiner will issue a final cause and manner of death on the death certificate.
When is an Autopsy Required by Law?
In The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Medical Examiner is required to investigate and determine the manner and cause of death in cases of suicide, homicide, or accidental deaths. In addition, autopsies are required when a natural death is sudden, unexpected, or medically unattended. A forensic pathologist makes the decision to perform and autopsy.
The next of kin may request that an autopsy not be performed by signing a written waiver. In these situations, the coroner will weigh the reasons to conduct the autopsy against the harm it would cause to those objecting to it. In these situations, a judge will decide whether to allow the autopsy to proceed, or to adhere to the family’s wishes.
Who can Request an Autopsy?
In Pennsylvania, the coroner is responsible to order an autopsy. An autopsy is required in certain cases of sudden or suspicious death, but in many cases the coroner can choose whether to pursue an autopsy.
The next of kin may request in autopsy. In Pennsylvania, state law defines next of kin in the following order, assuming all are 18 years or older or emancipated minors.
- Biological or adopted children
- Siblings and their children
State laws may vary on the order for next of kin. Be sure to consult with a wrongful death lawyer to help you understand who may order an autopsy in your state.
Who Performs an Autopsy?
An autopsy is often performed by a medical examiner. A medical examiner who performs an autopsy is a doctor, typically a pathologist. Clinical autopsies are always performed by a pathologist.
If an autopsy is not required by law, and the medical examiner chooses not to perform one despite request, the next of kin can pursue a private autopsy by a board-certified physician specializing in clinical or forensic pathology.
Some teaching and private hospitals will perform their own autopsies. In these cases, the autopsy is still ordered by a physician or medical examiner or requested by family.
What is a Private Autopsy? Why Would I Request One?
A private autopsy is conducted by a board-certified physician specializing in clinical or forensic pathology. There are several situations in which next of kin may want to request a private autopsy. Often these situations occur when a medical examiner chooses not to perform an autopsy, but the next of kin feels that it is important. A private autopsy is often sought for the following reasons:
- The family suspects medical malpractice: A private autopsy can help determine the cause of death and help the family decide whether to pursue a lawsuit for an alleged medical mistake.
- The family is considering another type of legal action: A private autopsy may be for families considering legal action in cases where a company or product may be liable in the person’s death.
- The family desires a second opinion: Families who are unsatisfied with an autopsy that has been performed by a medical examiner may request a private autopsy.
- The autopsy is needed to meet insurance provisions: An insurance company may require an autopsy in certain cases, or an autopsy may help expedite the insurance claim process
- The family wants to understand the potential for genetic conditions: A private autopsy can help determine if a genetic condition may have contributed to the death. This knowledge can allow family members to pursue genetic testing to find out if they have a similar underlying disorder and seek out treatment.
Why is an Autopsy Important?
An autopsy can provide crucial information for families considering a wrongful death case. An autopsy contains a far more extensive information than a death certificate. This information can be helpful in proving liability in cases where medical malpractice is suspected in the death. A wrongful death lawyer at our firm can provide guidance on whether an autopsy should be considered in the case of alleged medical malpractice or other wrongful death claim.
When is an Autopsy Performed?
An autopsy is most often completed within 24 – 48 hours post-mortem. If the deceased is properly cooled, a brief delay of several days generally will not interfere with autopsy results. However, the results of some specialized tests could be affected by delayed examination.
How Long Does an Autopsy Take?
An autopsy typically takes 2 to 4 hours to complete. Additional studies, such as toxicology reports, may take longer to process.
Will an Autopsy Interfere with Funeral Services?
An autopsy typically does not affect normal viewing of the body for funeral services. Incisions can be covered by regular clothing and positioning of the body.
What is the Cost for a Private Autopsy?
The cost for a private autopsy can be expensive. Private health insurance, Medicare and Medicaid do not pay for private autopsy examinations. Sometimes, a teaching hospital that conducts an autopsy after a death at their hospital may perform the service free of charge.
You can expect to pay in the range of $3,000 – $6,000 for a private autopsy by a forensic pathologist. However, if you believe your loved one’s death may be the result of medical malpractice, it may be worthwhile to pursue a private autopsy if the medical examiner chose not to perform an autopsy.
A wrongful death lawyer or the funeral home director can help assist in finding a forensic pathologist for a private autopsy. Another resource is the National Association of Medical Examiners. This organization provides a list of pathologists performing private autopsies and forensic consultation.
Can my loved one’s organs be donated prior to an autopsy?
In many circumstances, it is possible for organ donation to occur prior to an autopsy. In cases where an autopsy is required by law, both the next of kin and the Office of the Medical Examiner must authorize the organ donation. Once organ donation has been authorized by both parties, a representative from the Center of Organ Recovery and Education (C.O.R.E) will contact the next of kin to discuss options.
How to I Receive an Autopsy Report?
If an autopsy is completed by a medical examiner, the next of kin must make a written request with the medical examiner’s office to receive a copy of the report. Depending on the coroner’s office, these reports may take weeks or months to receive. Reports from autopsies performed at a hospital can often be requested through the medical records department.
Individuals who pursue a private autopsy may be able to receive a report directly from the pathologist performing the autopsy. Depending on the pathologist, these results may be available more expediently than an autopsy completed at a medical examiner’s office.
Who Signs the Death Certificate?
The pathologist performing a private autopsy does not sign the death certificate. Instead, the attending physician who provided medical services prior to death is responsible for signing the death certificate. If this does not occur, the coroner or medical examiner signs the death certificate in cases under their jurisdiction.
Contact a Wrongful Death Lawyer Today
A medical malpractice or wrongful death lawyer at our firm can help answer questions about filing a claim and whether an autopsy should be considered. Our lawyers understand that deciding to pursue an autopsy is a highly emotional decision for many people. Grieving family members may be unsure on whether to pursue this surgical examination during a time of sadness and confusion. Additionally, families may need to weigh the benefit of the receiving autopsy information against specific religious traditions.
Because making this decision is time sensitive, we encourage you contact a lawyer for advice as soon as possible. The lawyers at the Wieand Law Firm can help answer any questions you may have and assist in taking the next steps in investigating your situation. Call a lawyer at our firm today at 215-666-7777 or send us a message for a free consultation with an attorney.