When Joan Rivers died not long ago, an autopsy was performed.

There's only one reason why an autopsy is performed: To determine the cause of death.

An autopsy is a clinical examination of a person's body by a doctor known as a pathologist. The one and only reason to do an autopsy is to find out why that person died.

There are many instances where the cause of death is different than what the family thought it would be. Other times, the cause of death is directly attributable to carelessness by a doctor or medical staff.

What I found particularly unusual when reports about Joan River's autopsy results were discussed in the news media is that the autopsy was 'inconclusive'. I will tell you that in handling medical malpractice and wrongful death cases for 26 years here in New York, I have never, ever seen an autopsy report say that the cause of death was "Inconclusive." Just doesn't happen.

The medical examiner will always list a cause of death. They will always list secondary causes of death as well.

The news reports indicated that more specialized tests needed to be done to determine what the precise cause of death was. While it is true that certain post-mortem toxicology tests take time to evaluate and get the results, you never see a conclusion on an autopsy report saying the cause of death was "Inconclusive."

The cause of death might be hypoxia (lack of oxygen) leading to respiratory and cardiac arrest. It might be pulmonary embolism. It might be athersclerosis (buildup of coronary plaque and heart disease) as a contributing cause of someone's death. It might be hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (which is a reduced amount of oxygen leading to decreased blood flow and brain damage).

There could be many causes for someone's death.

I also found it interesting that the actual autopsy report was not made public. There was tremendous news coverage about the event surrounding Joan's endoscopy procedure, the involvement of her gastroenterologist, her ear nose and throat doctor, the investigation by the New York State department of health and even a police investigation.

Only through well placed 'leaks' by certain 'sources' did we learn that Joan's autopsy results were 'inconclusive'.

While it is possible that the medical examiner may have wanted to wait until the blood and vitreous fluid and brain fluid were analyzed before coming to a final conclusion, it's is highly unlikely that a well-qualified medical examiner would ever say it was inconclusive. 

"Final toxicology results pending..." sure. "Inconclusive..." no.

Gerry Oginski
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NY Medical Malpractice & Personal Injury Trial Lawyer
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