Traditionally autopsies served as a form of audit for doctors after the death of a patient in their care. Irrespective of how confident the treating physician was in their diagnosis, an autopsy helped confirm the accuracy of their diagnosis.
Today, autopsies are not performed as part of routine medical care. They are conducted in situations of unexpected and unusual deaths or when death results from a crime. Wrongful deaths resulting from medical errors fall under unexpected or unusual death, meaning that an autopsy may be necessary depending on the circumstances.
A Case Stands on Evidence
Medical malpractice arises when the treating doctor or health facility deviates from the standard of care, resulting in injuries to a patient. This deviation from the standard of care constitutes negligence, creating grounds for a medical malpractice lawsuit. When medical malpractice lawsuits result in death, the bereaved dependent can file a wrongful death claim with the retreating doctor or hospital.
The standard of proof is pretty complicated for medical malpractice lawsuits, and the success of any case will depend on the evidence. There are situations when the evidence of medical malpractice is apparent in a wrongful death case. Under such circumstances, a medical malpractice lawyer can choose to move on with the lawsuit without an autopsy.
But there are other situations where the evidence may not be apparent. Under such circumstances, an autopsy can help establish the most likely cause of death, which becomes a critical piece of evidence if it points to negligence.
Options for an Autopsy
If a family or the dependents of the deceased suspect negligence in the death of their loved one but cannot substantiate their suspicions with evidence, the best option would be to hire a private medical examiner to help conduct an autopsy. Other options include having the treating hospital conduct an autopsy or a county medical examiner.
However, the last two options may not be the best if you intend to have solid evidence to prove your case. The problem with having the treating hospital conduct an autopsy is that they will be inclined to not point the blame at themselves to avoid liability. A county medical examiner may not be biased, so it is a much better option. However, most county examiners will only report on the cause of death but will not give detailed information concerning the cause.
For example, if a patient dies of a stroke, the county medical examiner’s report could indicate cerebral vascular disease as the cause of death. While the report is correct, it does not give details on whether medical malpractice was a factor in causing the death. This vagueness in reporting cannot help much prove a case leaving a private autopsy as the best option in establishing the real cause of death.
It Is a Difficult but Important Decision to Make
The decision to have an autopsy performed on a loved one can be challenging. It is a question of morality to some people, while it is a religious reason to others. “Sometimes the deceased may have left instructions to their family about whether or not an autopsy can be performed on them,” says Berkowitz Hanna Malpractice & Injury Lawyers
An autopsy can also be pretty expensive, which means that if the claimants do not have the financial muscle for the exercise, they might opt-out. Irrespective of the reason for not performing an autopsy, there are situations where not performing one could mean filing a weak case.