An autopsy is the detailed dissection of a body to determine the cause of death. In addition, autopsies provide crucial information for those who have a legal interest in a death that occurred in a suspicious or unusual way. For instance, they may provide information crucial to a claim that a death resulted from medical malpractice,
Pennsylvania law does not automatically require the medical procedure. Instead, coroners decide whether to perform an autopsy. Coroners are often elected officials and do not necessarily have extensive medical training.
What is the difference between a coroner and a medical examiner?
A medical examiner performs the autopsy. The position requires years of medical education and training. The procedure can involve removing internal organs and collecting samples of body fluids for testing. Depending on the ultimate cause of death, the procedure can require as few as 1-2 hours or more than a day. Upon completion, the doctor repots an exact cause of death, i.e. whether natural, accidental or intentional.
What laws govern autopsies in Pennsylvania?
Pennsylvania laws address all these subjects. Coroners serve at the municipal level upon election a four-year term and may appoint deputies to act in their places. They must complete a basic education course and pass an examination. Each year, they must complete eight credits in continuing education.
Deaths to be investigated include those sudden or violent and those “of a suspicious nature and character.” Other types of death that trigger an autopsy include those resulting from contagious disease, trauma, sudden infant death syndrome or a death in which the body remains unidentified. These situations have the ultimate purpose of determining whether reason exists to believe the deaths resulted from criminal acts.
Overwhelming grief comes with an unexpected death. In some cases, the law and medicine must merge to explain the cause. Attorneys who understand the situations when a medical error contributes to that event can offer guidance.