Cleveland Wrongful Death Lawyers

Under Ohio law, the coroner’s verdict creates a rebuttable presumption that establishes the medically accepted manner and mode of death for legal purposes.  In most instances, however, an autopsy is not performed, so no formal coroner’s verdict is issued.  In those cases, the Death Certificate establishes the formal cause of death.  Whether the official cause of death is set forth in a coroner’s verdict or a Death Certificate, a lawyer for any party can challenge the official cause of death in court proceedings.

In most wrongful death lawsuits, the cause of death is not at issue.  For example, in car accidents, truck accidents, workplace fatalities, explosions, electrocutions, falls and other traumatic injuries, the cause of death is obvious and uncontroversial.  However, in medical malpractice lawsuits, where a substandard medical care results in wrongful death, the cause of death is frequently at issue.  The plaintiff bears the burden of proving the cause of death.  Insurance company lawyers are skilled at creating doubt anytime the cause of death is not firmly established by the autopsy.  Even when an autopsy is performed, insurance company lawyers can always locate a hired gun pathologist to contest the cause of death and argue an alternative cause of death that, not coincidentally, absolves the defendant of liability.

Autopsies can be performed by the county coroner or by private autopsy.  The coroner is the medical examiner of the county in which the death occurred or where a body is found.  In Ohio, county coroners are elected.  In order to be eligible for the office of coroner, the individual must be a licensed physician for a period of at least two years immediately preceding election or appointment as coroner, and remain in good standing.  Typically, county coroners are pathologists by training.  In larger cities, the coroner or assistant coroner may have a subspecialty in forensic pathology.  However, there are only about 500 forensic pathologists in the United States, so not every county has one.

While the subspecialty of forensic pathology might sound impressive, particularly to aficionados of televised crime shows, like CSI, the field of forensic pathology is sorely lacking in standards and guidelines.  This opens the courtroom to hired gun medical experts who will try to create doubt through conjectural theories about the cause of death, even when these theories are not grounded in sound science or even common sense.

The coroner may appoint a deputy coroner, who also must be a licensed physician in good standing.  In addition to general pathologists and forensic pathologists, coroners may rely upon toxicologists to evaluate chemical and drug exposures.  Coroners may also enlist the services of nonmedical investigators who review medical records and interview witnesses to establish a factual narrative of events leading up to a particular individual’s death.

The county is required to provide a suitable laboratory and equipment necessary for the proper performance of the duties of the coroner.  This is designated as the coroner’s office, laboratory, and county morgue.  These facilities need not be located within the county.  The county coroner is the official custodian of the morgue.  One duty of the coroner is to identify the body or remains of a deceased person.  This is done at the county morgue when the decedent’s identity is not known.  If the coroner cannot identify the deceased person within thirty days, the coroner must notify the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation.  Prior to disposing of the body of an unknown individual, the coroner must take fingerprints, photographs and collect DNA, and forward that to the Bureau of Criminal Investigation for inclusion in an unidentified person database.

The coroner is required to keep records, including a completed death certificate.  Records must include detailed findings of the autopsy.  The coroner must deliver autopsy results to the prosecuting attorney when further investigation is advised.

As part of the coroner’s investigation into an individual’s cause of death, they may obtain medical and psychiatric records of the decedent in order to establish a past medical history, risk factors, and the clinical scenario leading up to the individual’s demise.  The medical and psychiatric records of the decedent do not become a public record even though they have been obtained by the coroner, a public official.  While the detailed descriptions of the observations written during the progress of an autopsy and the conclusions drawn from those observations are public records, the following records are not public records: (1) preliminary autopsy and investigative notes and findings made by the coroner or anyone acting under the coroner’s direction or supervision; (2) photographs of a decedent made by the coroner or by anyone acting under the coroner’s direction or supervision; (3) suicide notes; (4) medical and psychiatric records obtained by the coroner; and (5) confidential law enforcement investigatory records obtained by the coroner.  Records in the coroner’s office that are public records are open to inspection by the public and any person may obtain a copy of public records by a written request and payment of the applicable fee.  The full and complete records of the coroner may be obtained by written request of the next-of-kin.  Journalists can also review both public and nonpublic records associated with the autopsy, but cannot copy the nonpublic portions of the autopsy.  Insurers can also obtain a copy of the coroner’s report and records in order to determine eligibility for insurance benefits, such as life insurance proceeds.

The coroner has the discretion to perform an autopsy on any individual.  However, due to limited resources, autopsies are not routinely performed on individuals.  Physicians are required to notify the coroner in the event of a violent, suspicious, unusual, or sudden death.  It is a crime for persons to disturb the body of someone who dies under such circumstances.  When any child in apparent good health dies suddenly, persons with knowledge must report the death to the coroner in the county in which the death occurred.

In the event that a driver dies as a result of a car accident, the coroner must draw blood from the driver to determine whether the individual was under the influence of alcohol or drugs.  This rule does not apply to passengers.  Likewise, when an autopsy includes a toxicology test, the test must screen for certain drugs of abuse.

As part of an investigation into the cause of death, the coroner or deputy coroner has the right to issue subpoenas to compel witnesses to present before them for questioning.  Under these circumstances, the coroner or deputy coroner may administer an oath and question the witness about how the deceased came to his or her death.  A transcript will be made of this testimony and that record must be kept at the coroner’s office.  If a witness fails to cooperate with the coroner or deputy coroner, they can be jailed or held in contempt.

Private autopsies can be performed when a county coroner refuses to perform an autopsy, or the hospital where an individual dies refuses to submit the body to the hospital’s pathology department for autopsy.  Pathologists who perform private autopsies charge a fee for this service.  Often, pathologists who perform private autopsies are employed by area coroner’s offices and perform the private autopsy in their off-hours as a moonlighting activity.  Obviously, under ideal circumstances, the autopsy will be performed promptly after the individual’s death, in order to obtain the best results and to avoid costs associated with disinterment.

When an individual dies as a result of a car accident, truck accident, medical malpractice or other circumstances where a third party may be liable for the individual’s premature death, it is important to contact a Cleveland wrongful death lawyer or medical malpractice lawyer in order to determine whether an autopsy should be performed.  Our law firm provides free consultation under these circumstances.  Feel free to call Mishkind Kulwicki Law Firm and we would be happy to answer any of your questions.