Can Anyone Request An Autopsy In Pennsylvania?


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An autopsy, also known as a post-mortem medical examination, is a surgical procedure that helps determine the manner and cause of a person’s death. While an autopsy is required by law in some cases, most deaths are not investigated in this way. However, if a family member of the deceased wants to have an autopsy performed, they can make a request to the coroner. This is especially important when there are any concerns or suspicions that medical malpractice was involved in the death. 

When Are Autopsies Required By Pennsylvania Law?

Under Pennsylvania law, county coroners are responsible for investigating deaths and determining whether the circumstances require that an autopsy be performed. The following are situations that necessitate an autopsy: 

  • Sudden deaths in which the cause can’t be determined with certainty by a doctor.
  • Suspicious deaths in which the person died under dubious circumstances. This often occurs when the deceased person may have recently consumed alcohol or taken drugs. 
  • Deaths in which a reaction to a drug or a drug overdose played a part in the person’s cause of death. 
  • Deaths that occur as a result of trauma or violence. This includes situations found to be intentional like suicide or homicide and accidents like car crashes, drownings, explosions, freezing, falls, etc. 
  • Deaths that happen during surgical procedures that are not explainable by the person’s prior medical condition. 
  • Deaths that are a result of a contagious disease that constitute a public hazard. 
  • Sudden or unexplained infant deaths.
  • All stillbirths.

Even with the lengthy list above, in the vast majority of cases, an autopsy is not required by law. Most of the time, when a family member dies, the death can be attributed to a single event or a series of events that can be reasonably determined and explained. However, if the events that led to the death or the explanation of the cause of death don’t make sense or are incomplete, then the family should consider an autopsy. 

What Can Be Done If The Coroner Doesn’t Order An Autopsy?

Suppose you have lost a loved one and the coroner did not find that the situation warranted an autopsy. In that case, you can request that a private autopsy be conducted if you are a family member or legally responsible party. The autopsy you request for your loved one must be performed by a forensic pathologist. You can usually find one by asking the funeral director for a recommendation or asking a doctor who you trust for a referral to a pathologist who does private autopsies. 

If there is any possibility that medical negligence led to or contributed to the death, then requesting an autopsy is crucial. It is also critical that you contact a medical malpractice attorney who deals with cases like yours. 

Why Is An Autopsy Important In A Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

Wrongful death lawsuits often center on the information that is found in an autopsy. The exact cause of death that is determined by the autopsy is often the starting point for wrongful death attorneys in proving their cases. Remember, proving a wrongful death lawsuit requires that your attorney proves:

  • a death occurred
  • the death was a result of the defendant’s negligence or intent to harm
  • the surviving family suffered a financial loss due do the victim’s death

The second point requires knowing what caused your loved one to die. When the cause of death is unknown or unclear, it makes proving negligence or medical malpractice more difficult. An autopsy could help prove what really happened. For example, an individual has a surgical procedure in which a doctor makes a life-threatening mistake, but the mistake doesn’t cause the patient to pass away until weeks later. Without an autopsy, the death might be attributed to something other than medical malpractice because the exact cause of death isn’t defined. 

When An Autopsy Indicates Wrongful Death

Requesting that an autopsy be done on a loved one can be extremely emotional for many family members. As a result, grieving relatives may not decide to ask for an autopsy during this difficult time. However, it’s important to remember that if there is any inkling that medical negligence contributed to the death, an autopsy report is very valuable when proving a wrongful death case. 

In a wrongful death lawsuit, the deceased's immediate family members (spouse, children, parents, etc.) can seek damages for their loved one’s medical expenses, lost wages and future income, pain and suffering, and loss of companionship. While no amount of money can replace your devastating loss, compensation for damages can help ease the financial obligations that your loved one’s death caused. 

We Might Be Able To Help

If you believe that your loved one’s death was caused by negligence, or you have already had a private autopsy performed that indicates that possibility, you may have a wrongful death case against the party who is at fault. You must contact a wrongful death attorney to help you proceed with your claim. 

At Ross Feller Casey, our attorneys are experienced with wrongful death lawsuits. We have a long track record of winning large financial recoveries for our clients who have lost loved ones due to medical malpractice. We have a team of Ivy League-educated physicians on staff to review medical records and autopsy reports and determine where the negligence occurred and how it contributed to the death.

Contact the office of Ross Feller Casey today for help with your case. There is a time limit to file a wrongful death claim, so don’t delay. Your case review is free, and all wrongful death cases are handled on a contingency basis, so you don’t have to worry about out-of-pocket costs to get started. We only get paid if there is a financial recovery in your case. 

Disclaimer: Ross Feller Casey, LLP provides legal advice only after an attorney-client relationship is formed. Our website is an introduction to the firm and does not create a relationship between our attorneys and clients. An attorney-client relationship is formed only after a written agreement is signed by the client and the firm. Because every case is unique, the description of awards and summary of cases successfully handled are not intended to imply or guarantee that same success in other cases. Ross Feller Casey, LLP represents catastrophically injured persons and their families in injury and wrongful death cases, providing legal representation in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.