The Body as Proof: Litigation Risks Involving Autopsies

Introduction

Autopsy Liability Risks
The national autopsy rate in the U.S. has fallen to about 8.5% of the nearly 7,000 deaths that occur each day, a rate that a research group working for the Department of Justice called “miserably low.” Because of the decline in the rate of autopsies performed, cause-of-death determinations for a number of important disease conditions and for deaths of persons over age 65 are now primarily based on diagnoses and examinations, not on autopsies.

Although autopsies are considered crucial in determining the cause of death for a deceased person, particularly in cases of homicide, the report of the Scientific Working Group for Medicolegal Death Investigation noted a critical shortage of experts trained to conduct autopsies and death investigations. In addition to a shortage of forensic pathologists, the study also noted that “many hospitals have basically abandoned the use of … autopsies” as a result of changes in hospital accreditation standards and reduced funding for autopsies.

Despite the decline in autopsy rates, hundreds of thousands of autopsies are still performed each year, and some of these lead to litigation. Attorneys, physicians, insurers, employers, and other potential parties to litigation should be aware of the types of lawsuits and other liability issues that may arise in connection with injuries related to autopsies.