There are two scenarios where a cause of death may be reviewed under Ohio law. First, an attending physician who negligently causes his/her patient’s death may be the same physician who prepares the Death Certificate. In such a situation, the attending physician has an obvious conflict of interest. The patient’s family may want an independent physician to review the case so that an objective, unbiased cause of death can be entered. This can be done by contacting the county coroner’s office and requesting an autopsy. However, the county coroner need not conduct an autopsy in every case.
A case does not become a “coroner’s case” unless the coroner is notified that a person died “as a result of criminal or other violent means, by casualty, by suicide, or in any suspicious or unusual manner, when any person, including a child under two years of age, dies suddenly when in apparent good health, or when any mentally retarded person or developmentally disabled person dies regardless of the circumstances….” So, a family may need to alert the coroner of a suspicious death if the attending physician does not choose to do so.
Even then, the coroner has discretion to refuse to do an autopsy if he/she decides that the death is not “suspicious or unusual.” This has occurred in cases of suspected medical negligence that I have investigated. In this circumstance, the family can opt to have a private autopsy performed.
There are a number of private companies who perform private autopsies, but usually at a hefty price. Under Ohio law, arrangements can even be made to disinter a body in order to perform a private autopsy, but again this process is costly. Short of performing a private autopsy, a qualified expert can sometimes address the cause of death based on a review of medical records, imaging films and/or pathology slides without incurring the expense of a private autopsy.
The second scenario where a review of the cause of death may be necessary is where the coroner enters an erroneous cause of death. A coroner’s verdict, while objective, can nonetheless be erroneous if the coroner relies on information supplied by a biased caregiver or fails to conduct a thorough autopsy. An erroneous coroner’s verdict can have a devastating evidentiary impact in a medical malpractice case.
Under Ohio law, “