Why is an autopsy of crucial importance in a wrongful death claim?

The evaluation of a wrongful death claim begins with one simple question: What was the cause of death?  If the physician committed numerous deviations from the standard of care that did not contribute to causing death, then the violations of the standard of care are meaningless.

For this reason, the first question that I ask when evaluating a wrongful death case is: "Was an autopsy performed?"  An autopsy provides almost irrefutable evidence of the cause of death in most cases and the findings from an autopsy are 100% more definitive with respect to the cause of death than a death certificate. 

The most common cause of death on a death certificate is "cardiopulmonary arrrest". What a shocker!  The decedent's heart stopped beating, as if we didn't know that already. The decedent's primary care physician will sign the death certificate and list a cause of death that usually is broad and non-specific, i.e., cardiopulmonary arrest. Death certificates are often useless in determining the cause of death.

In stark contrast to a death certificate, an autopsy entails an inspection of every part of the body by a pathologist and microscopic examination of areas of the body that provide clues to the cause of death, such as a blocked coronary artery.  When the factual circumstances of the death (known as the "clinical history") are combined with the pathological examination of the body during an autopsy, the cause of death can be determined in 98% of all cases.  Not shabby!

Once we know the cause of death, the next part is easy: determining whether the death was preventable.  Most deaths are potentially preventable in hindsight, so that's really not the issue.  The real issue is whether a deviation from the standard of care by a medical provider caused the death.  This is a part of the evaluation that I cannot address unless we first know the cause of death.

The next time you have a friend or loved one who dies a sudden death that you suspect may have been caused by medical neglect, keep in mind that an autopsy is the most important thing that can be done.