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Is an Autopsy Necessary in a Wrongful Death Case?

Last updated: October 10, 2023

When faced with the death of a loved one, it may not always be clear that another party was at fault. A postmortem medical exam, also known as an autopsy, can help determine the manner and cause of death and is normally requested or ordered if the suspect or cause of death is unclear. It also becomes necessary if the deceased was very young or died under unusual circumstances. 

Is an Autopsy a Must in a Wrongful Death Case?

An autopsy is not legally binding in case of wrongful death but may be necessary if the party at fault denies liability. The autopsy report may eliminate all doubt and prove that a party’s negligence caused the death of a loved one. These reports generally contain critical details, such as the factors that result in a person’s death, a brief account of the medical care that preceded the death, a comprehensive exam of the body, tissue samples assessed under a microscope, and photographs. 

All this evidence obtained from an autopsy can be used to link the victim’s death directly with the culprit party’s actions. This is a legal element called ‘causation.’ If you fail to prove the cause of the death, you will not be able to hold the other party responsible for their actions. In certain cases, sufficient evidence may prove the other party’s fault without requiring an autopsy. 

Circumstances where Law Mandates an Autopsy 

Different states have different laws that mandate autopsies. Listed below are a few examples of when an autopsy may be necessary for a wrongful death situation:

  • If someone dies a violent death 
  • When someone dies when no one else is around 
  • Suspected or known suicide 
  • Suspected or known accidental poisoning 
  • A death that occurs in a state mental facility 
  • Deaths caused by occupational hazards or diseases
  • When the deceased had a substance abuse disorder 
  • When the manner of death involved a suspicious criminal act

Who Pays for the Autopsy in a Wrongful Death Case?

In case of wrongful death, whether due to intentional or unintentional harm, the medical examiner or coroner will normally order an autopsy, and the deceased’s family will not be responsible for its payment. However, if the autopsy is not deemed necessary by the authorities, but you suspect foul play, or if the insurance company is disputing claims, you have the option to get an autopsy done privately. This means that you will have to bear the cost, which can be between $2,000 and $5,000. 

Completing an autopsy report can take weeks or months, depending on the kind of screenings or tests needed. Once the medical examiner has completed the report, a copy is sent to the deceased next of kin. The report will either contradict or confirm the death certificate. Ultimately, if the final report shows that another party was at fault, the family of the victim can proceed with their funeral plans and apply for a wrongful death claim

What if a Family Member Objects to an Autopsy in a Wrongful Death Case?

In certain cases, family members may not be happy with an autopsy for a wrongful death claim, even if it speeds up the process and proves liability. This could be the result of the religious beliefs of the deceased. However, the deceased must have filled out a Certificate of Religious Belief form before passing away. 

There are other reasons why families may be against performing an autopsy on their loved ones. Some people consider cutting open a deceased person’s body morally wrong. Others may have emotional qualms because they are still grieving and going through a very traumatic period. 

In some states, other than religious beliefs, no other reasons are considered valid and legal objections to autopsies. Therefore, if a medical examiner or coroner decides that an autopsy is necessary, the family’s emotional, moral, and non-religious objections will not stop the process from being performed. 

Final Thoughts

Dealing with the death of a loved one can be very scarring and traumatic. If you suspect a party is at fault in causing their death, contact a personal injury lawyer immediately for further assistance. These professionals are trained and experienced in providing legal representation and can take the weight off your shoulders. You can discuss your autopsy options, financial compensation, and other important things that will help expedite the process. 

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