The first step in a wrongful death case is determining the cause of death and an autopsy is considered definitive proof of the cause of death. The final page of the autopsy report will list the cause of death under the sub-heading, “Findings”.
Once you have the cause of death from the autopsy report, you can review the medical records to determine if the death was preventable. Let’s say, for example, you have a claim based on a failure to diagnose an infection. If the autopsy report does not list an infection as a cause of death, it will be very hard to prove that the death was caused by the infection. This is why the autopsy is crucial to your case.
You can get the autopsy report from the Medical Examiner in the county where the autopsy was performed. In some cases, you may also want to request the pathology slides that were created during the autopsy and you can request a meeting with the Medical Examiner to discuss the findings in her autopsy report.
Why a Death Certificate is not as Good as an Autopsy
When there is no autopsy and it’s too late to request one, you have to rely on the cause of death that’s listed on the Death Certificate. The Death Certificate is prepared by the decedent’s primary physician or the doctor who cared for the decedent at the hospital. The Death Certificate will list the cause of death in the lower third of the page.
Under New York law, the Death Certificate is considered “presumptive evidence” as to the cause of death—meaning that there is a presumption that the cause of death on the Death Certificate is correct. However, the cause of death on a Death Certificate is not based on a pathological examination of the decedent’s body and a microscopic examination of the body tissue and blood. The cause of death on a Death Certificate is often based on simply an assumption that is made by the decedent’s treating physician.
If you have a case involving the wrongful death of a loved one, you should always request an autopsy. There is no better way to determine the cause of death.