Autopsies are often used to help create and solve mysteries in popular entertainment. In novels, television shows, and movies, brilliant (and often eccentric) medical examiners set the stage for plot twists with unexpected findings. It seems like there is a crime drama on television almost nightly in which an autopsy is necessary to solve a crime.
Thus, when people hear the term “wrongful death,” it is not surprising that their thoughts of a wrongful death legal action are commingled with the use of autopsies in criminal law as is so often portrayed in entertainment media. However, while sometimes helpful, autopsies are not required in wrongful death actions in Oregon. This blog post will provide a more nuanced discussion of when autopsies may be needed and when they are not required.
An Action for Wrongful Death Is Civil in Nature
The first point to recognize is that a wrongful death action is a civil action, not a criminal prosecution. Oregon civil law permits an appropriate personal representative of a decedent to pursue legal action to recover damages on behalf of someone who is wrongfully killed. A few examples of conduct that might give rise to a wrongful death action include the following:
- A semi-truck driver causes a crash that results in the death of another person.
- A doctor commits medical malpractice, which results in the death of a patient.
- A company wrongfully exposes workers to asbestos, leading to an employee’s death.
- A nurse administers the wrong drug to a patient, which leads to death.
- An automobile driver negligently strikes a bicyclist, pedestrian, or another car and causes someone to die.
- A nursing home employee acts negligently and causes the death of a resident.
- A customer is killed at a business because the owner did not take adequate security precautions.
On the other hand, criminal actions involve state prosecutions by the district attorney, and a conviction can result in incarceration, fines, and probation. In contrast, the remedy in a civil wrongful death action is often money damages.
When Are Autopsies Required?
In general, autopsies have become less common over time in the United States and around the world. For example, in the 1950s, autopsies were performed on approximately 50 percent of those who died in American hospitals. However, autopsies are only performed in about 5 percent of cases today.
Autopsies are not required to initiate and pursue a wrongful death action. However, to recover for death or injuries in a personal injury lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s injuries. In legal terms, this is called causation. An autopsy may sometimes be needed or helpful to prove causation. A couple of examples may help illustrate the point.
Assume, for example, that a passenger car is involved in an accident with a tractor-trailer truck and multiple passengers in the automobile pass away from catastrophic injuries. Someone can easily prove that the truck accident was the cause of death without an autopsy. That said, a doctor would generally prepare paperwork explaining the cause of death.
On the other hand, consider a patient who has multiple underlying medical issues and dies during an operation. It is not immediately clear if the surgeon committed medical malpractice or if a pre-existing condition caused the death. An autopsy may be needed to determine precisely how the patient died.
Call with Questions
The event of a wrongful death will leave you with plenty of questions about how to proceed. Please call the experienced wrongful death attorneys at Nelson MacNeil Rayfield for a free consultation, and we will be happy to answer those questions. We know the law, and believe that it is imperative to hold negligent parties responsible for their conduct so that all of society will be safer.