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When Should You Demand an Autopsy After a Loved One Dies?

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When a loved one dies, often the first question on the minds of surviving family is: “Why?” When that question isn’t easily answered, having a good lawyer to help navigate the process of requesting an autopsy can help.

Far fewer autopsies are performed in the U.S. today than in the past. According to a recent study, before 1970, 40–60 percent of all hospital deaths in the U.S. ended in autopsy. Now that number stands below 5 percent.

This is especially troubling in cases where multiple factors contributed to a death. If you suspect that you haven’t gotten the full story about a loved one’s passing, our lawyers can discuss the circumstances with you and help you to navigate the complex process of requesting an autopsy.

When Are Autopsies Usually Conducted?

Partially due to advances in medical imaging, deaths caused by disease are rarely autopsied in the U.S. these days. In other circumstances, however, most states have laws mandating autopsies. 

These circumstances usually include the following causes of death:

  • As a result of violence
  • Suicide 
  • After a rapid decline, when in seemingly good health
  • In a suspicious or unusual manner, especially for those 16 years of age and younger
  • After birth but before 7 years old, if the death is unexpected or unexplained
  • As a result of an execution carried out by the state
  • As an inmate
  • After having been admitted to a hospital unconscious and without regaining consciousness within 24 hours of admission
  • As a result of an apparent drug overdose
  • When unattended by a physician

The Circumstances Where Autopsies Should Be Considered

Despite this trend, autopsies remain the best way of properly diagnosing cause of death. “Our ability to determine the cause of death is pretty bad unless you do an autopsy,” Mary Fowkes, a pathologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, told Undark. She added that about one-quarter of autopsies reveal something previously unknown about the patient’s cause of death.

Autopsies can be especially helpful in cases where comorbidities are involved, or where medical error may have played a part. While previous analysis of the prevalence of medical errors may have been overblown, they still pose a significant risk. And they are not likely to be volunteered by those responsible.

Regardless, whether or not you should request an autopsy can only be answered by you. If you are left with questions about the care of your loved one or anything else that may have contributed to their death, an autopsy will be your most conclusive answer. In addition, autopsies are often necessary to proceeding with a wrongful death case.

Who Can Request an Autopsy? 

You don’t have to be a family member of someone who has passed to request an autopsy. According to American Forensics, a private autopsy provider, any family member or close friend of the deceased may request an autopsy. 

Once the request is made, it must then be authorized by the relevant authorities.

Who Performs the Autopsy? 

The hospital where your loved one passed will perform an autopsy at the request of the attending physician or a family member or friend. It’s also possible to request a private autopsy. 

A secondary consideration to keep in mind is that the forensic pathologist who performs the autopsy may be called upon to testify in court. In such cases, you may be more comfortable enlisting a truly independent pathologist. 

How Soon Should an Autopsy Be Done? 

Although an immediate autopsy is most ideal, autopsies performed at a later date can still yield valuable results. 

Who Pays? 

Autopsies aren’t typically covered by private insurers, Medicare or Medicaid. Hospitals may perform a requested autopsy free of charge. Private autopsies will often run as high as $3,000–5,000.

In cases where wrongful death is suspected, an autopsy may be essential. Sometimes it’s the difference between having a case or not.

When to Consult with an Experienced Lawyer

If your loved one has died unexpectedly and you are looking for answers, we can help you evaluate your next steps.

Contact us today at 1-800-681-3550, or fill out our contact form. We will start looking into your case immediately.


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