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Counsel That You Can Trust & Depend On


Guy DiMartino Oct. 31, 2014

Indiana medical malpractice lawyer discusses whether you should get an autopsy after a family members dies.

All Northwest Indiana personal injury lawyers constantly tell folks that that the sooner they retain an attorney the better it is because evidence gets lost or destroyed. This is common in a car accident case, if the car is fixed or destroyed without documenting the damage that information is lost forever.

The same concept holds true in a medical malpractice/wrongful death case. Most family members or friends will not think of hiring a medical malpractice lawyer until sometime after the injured person died and was buried. By this time, the issue of whether an autopsy should have been done is passed. I have been confronted with this issue on cases throughout the years, so I will weigh in with my thoughts.

An autopsy is a post-mortem examination of the body. The medical examiner (coroner) or pathologist will evaluate the gross structure of the body and organs as well as the microscopic structure of the organ systems. Additionally, she may sample and test certain bodily fluids.

There is no set answer as to whether an autopsy should be performed. At times, it can help prove the cause of death in a case. Other times, it can be inconclusive and hamper the prosecution of a medical malpractice claim.

Here is the dilemma. In a failure to diagnose cancer case, the issue is whether the delay in the diagnosis impacted the survival of the patient. As a general proposition, the earlier cancer is diagnosed the greater the chance of survival. The client ends up dying from the cancer and an autopsy is performed. During the autopsy, the pathologist finds other disease processes, which would limit the decedent's life expectancy. The defense will be able to take the position that even if the cancer was diagnosed timely and treated, the decedent had other disease processes that would have cut short his life.

On the other hand, I have seen autopsies that really solidified the cause of death. In one case, the plaintiff's theory of liability was unreasonable force by law enforcement officers that caused a medical condition that was not timely diagnosed. The autopsy findings showed severe muscle breakdown, bruising and organ damage in multiple areas of the decedent's body. The autopsy findings were consistent with blunt force trauma and the plaintiff's theory of the case.

In another case, the issue was whether the patient died of an unexpected acute cardiac event or a pulmonary embolism (blood clot that travels to the lungs). The autopsy findings noted multiple blood clots in the decedent's lungs, which supported pulmonary emboli as the cause of death.

All in all, if I was consulted by a family member and asked if an autopsy should be performed, and there was no religious objection, I would recommend that it should be performed if there is a question regarding cause of death. Autopsy findings may provide the cause of death that would allow us to work backwards to find out exactly what happened. An autopsy may also answer a number of questions that family members may have regarding the death and provide closure.

Indiana medical malpractice law is complex. If you have any questions about a potential medical malpractice case, please call our office at (219) 874-4878 or fill out the internet consultation form on the right.