One of the most difficult things a person can experience is the unexpected death of a loved one. When another person caused that death, whether accidentally or intentionally, survivors may have the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the responsible party (or their insurance company). This will require obtaining a death certificate and may involve an autopsy, depending on the manner of death. It’s important to know the difference between the two.
Death certificates are among the most important legal documents that exist:
- They provide legal proof that someone has died.
- Survivors of the deceased use death certificates to settle their affairs.
- Governments and other entities use them to stop social security payments, pensions and other benefits.
- Death records inform the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), which is part of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about diseases, death rates, life expectancy, and the changing risks to society. They use this information to create policies and direct funding to fight disease and preventable causes of death.
While these documents are vital in a number of ways, it’s important to understand that death certificate completion is not an exact science. The cause of death listed on a death certificate is simply an educated estimation of how the person died, and it can be wrong.
What’s On the Death Certificate?
What death certificates tell us about the deceased person:
- Date, time and place of death
- Full name
- Marital status and spouse’s name
- Occupation and employment status
- Veteran status
- Address at time of death
- Parent’s birth and death information
- Cause of death
- Manner of death
The final two items, cause and manner of death, are the most important when it comes to wrongful death cases.
Cause of Death
The cause of death is the specific disease or injury that leads to death. On the U.S. Standard Death Certificate, which most state death certificates follow, this has two parts:
- Part I: Immediate Cause of Death – This describes the chain of events that led to the person’s death.
- Part II: Underlying Causes of Death – This can be a disease or condition related to the person’s medical history, or something that happened in the hours before a person died that was not listed in Part I.
While the cause of death may be obvious, this is often simply the best guess of the person signing the certificate. For example, when the person enters “cardiac arrest” as the cause of death, it simply means that the person’s heart stopped for some reason – meaning the person couldn’t determine the exact cause of death.
Manner of Death
The manner of death is the determination of how the injury or disease caused the person’s death. There are five manners of death:
- Natural – a disease or health condition
- Accident – an unintentional event that led to the person’s death
- Suicide – the person intentionally caused their own death
- Homicide – an intentional event that caused the person’s death
- Undetermined – the reporter, or person signing the death certificate, cannot determine what happened
People who sign death certificates may be coroners, forensic pathologists or medical examiners who have performed an autopsy. Others are primary physicians, attending physicians, non-attending physicians, or nurse practitioners who confirmed the person was no longer alive.
The person reporting the death may enter incorrect information in either or both the cause and manner of death, especially if no autopsy was performed before the death certificate was signed.
Where Does Death Certificate Data Go?
Most state laws require death certificates to be filed with local and state health departments and vital records offices within a short time after the person’s death. It varies between states, but is typically within a week. In most areas, this can be done electronically.
Once the death certificate has been filed, families can request a copy so that they can file insurance claims and notify benefits providers and other necessary parties.
An autopsy is a post-mortem medical examination that a forensic pathologist, coroner or medical examiner performs on the body of a deceased person. It may also include an examination of the major organs (heart, lungs, liver and brain), or only the parts of the body most relevant to the case.
In certain circumstances, a medical examiner or coroner can order an autopsy without the permission of the next of kin. These circumstances include:
- A death the authorities suspect is the result of a crime
- A death that is the result of an accident or suicide
- An unexpected death, such as the sudden death of a person who appeared to be healthy
- A death that occurred within 24 hours of a hospital admission, or during an operation or medical procedure
- A work-related death
- A pregnancy or childbirth-related death
- A death that occurs while the person is in police custody
These types of death are called “reportable” deaths, meaning that any person who has knowledge of the above circumstances must report the information to the police or law enforcement.
After the autopsy, the pathologist creates an official report describing the procedure and the medical findings, as well as the results of any laboratory tests. The pathologist also analyzes the circumstances leading up to the person’s death and supplies a more informed opinion as to the cause of death.
Who Pays for the Autopsy?
If you feel your loved one’s death is reportable, and the coroner or medical examiner orders it, your family will not have to pay for it.
If it is not reportable, you should check with the hospital, nursing home, or doctor to see if there will be a charge. Often, hospitals affiliated with medical schools or research facilities may be willing to perform the autopsy for free as part of a medical research effort, or to educate medical students.
The deceased person’s next of kin can also choose to pay for a private autopsy. They aren’t cheap: expect to pay between $2000 – $5000.
However, if you have reason to believe the cause of your loved one’s death has been misreported, and/or the insurance company or other provider is disputing benefits, it may be in your best interest.
What Happens After the Autopsy?
An autopsy report takes a number of weeks to complete, especially if toxicology tests or other screenings are required. Once complete, the medical examiner’s office will provide a copy of the autopsy report to the family and other interested parties.
Often, the autopsy report confirms the cause and manner of death listed on the death certificate. When this happens, the family can have closure and move on.
Sometimes, the autopsy report contradicts the death certificate. In cases like this, the medical examiner will have the death certificate amended. The process of changing the death certificate can take months; however, the family can usually still go ahead with funeral plans and wrongful death claims as soon as the autopsy report is final.
On rare occasions, insurance companies or courts may order a second autopsy to settle or make a judgment in a disputed case. This typically happens only in extremely high-dollar amount cases, or those with far-reaching impact.
At TorkLaw, we know that losing a loved one is painful. When you suspect a wrongful death, it is additionally stressful and emotionally draining. You need a caring, compassionate partner with the knowledge, experience and resources to guide you through the process. Call us – we can help.
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