What is an autopsy, and why would it help my case?
An autopsy is an in-depth examination of a dead person, by a doctor. The doctor who performs the examination is usually a pathologist who looks to find the precise cause of death. They do this by looking at all of the internal organs, including the brain, heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, and spleen. Each area of the body is examined for evidence that contributed or caused that person's death.
In a case involving claims of wrongful death (where a person or family has claimed that their loved one died because of somone else's carelessness) having an autopsy is crucial to proving your case. While an autopsy is vital to support such a case, it can also shed light on the possibility that your loved one did not die as a result of wrongdoing.
It's a double edged sword. The autopsy could help your claim by showing that your loved one died from wrongdoing, or it could show that the treatment or actions that happened before death did not play a role in causing the death.
There are some religions that prohibit autopsies, and in those cases, it becomes extremely difficult to prove, with a reasonable degree of probability, that wrongdoing (such as malpractice) caused their death. In those cases, we must rely on other evidence to support our claim.
I am often called upon by grieving families to ask whether an autopsy should be performed on their loved one. As in life, there are no set answers to this crucial question. Emotions run high following a family death; questions about improper treatment may cloud a family's judgment; uncertainty about the cause of death may also add to a feeling of helplessness.
The most common case where an autopsy is performed is in a traumatic accident. In murder or homicide cases autopsies are always performed as the police want to know exactly what caused the person's death. They can usually use this information to track the perpetrator.
In New York, if a person dies suspiciously, or within 24 hours of having had surgery, an autopsy will usually be performed to determine the precise cause of death.
For example, I had a case where a man on dialysis came home one day, and was found later by his family in his bathroom having bled to death. The walls were covered with blood and there were open bandages all over the floor. An autopsy was able to confirm that the man's shunt (the place where the dialysis needle was put into his arm each session) had gotten infected and progressively larger with each session. Nobody recognized that he was starting to bleed when he left the dialysis center. Unfortunately, when he arrived home, the shunt ruptured and since it was connected to an artery, blood shot out all over the bathroom, creating what looked like a murder scene. It was only through the autopsy that we were able to prove our case successfully.
Autopsies are usually performed by the County Medical Examiner. In the five boroughs of New York City, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, Manhattan and Staten Island, autopsies are performed by the New York City Medical Examiner's Office. In Nassau, it's the Nassau County Medical Examiner, and in Suffolk, it's the Suffolk County Medical Examiner.