Autopsies In Wrongful Death Cases

A trial lawyer representing a client in a wrongful death case involving a dangerous, hazardous or toxic substance encountered by the decedent during his employment, has the right to have the County Medical Examiner perform an autopsy of the deceased. See Fla. Stat. 406.11. This may be very helpful, because in cases involving death due to exposure to dangerous, hazardous or toxic substances, the issue of causation is often difficult to prove. That is, it is hard to ascertain that the cause of death was substantially contributed to by exposure to the hazardous or toxic agent/chemical at issue. The question of causation may be conclusively decided by the pathologist after an autopsy is performed and the decedent’s tissue sampled. By studying the tissue and performing residual studies, the pathologist may be able to determine whether the toxic agent/chemical or other exposure involved was related to the cause of death, and whether such exposure substantially contributed to the cause of death. This type of testimony will later be critical in proving or disproving the case. See Florida Standard Jury Instruction 5.1(a)(b)(c). The pathologist’s findings may convincingly establish the case. Therefore, an autopsy is something that should be requested by both sides in the lawsuit. A plaintiff’s lawyer should seek the opinion of a medical examiner or a pathologist because it will assist in proving how the toxic or hazardous chemical worked within the body to kill the deceased person. On the other hand, a defendant in the action should also request this type of opinion since it may provide a complete defense should there not be any findings consistent with the plaintiff’s theory of recovery. In cases not involving exposure to toxic or hazardous substances in an employment setting, Florida law states that the court has discretion in deciding whether to enter an order directing performance of an autopsy. In the early case of Ullendorff v. Brown, 24 So.2d 37 (Fla. 1945), the Florida Supreme Court supported the Trial Court’s decision to have an autopsy of a deceased in a wrongful death case for the purpose of proving justice and preventing fraud. In that case, the body of the decedent was exhumed and an autopsy was performed. Ullendorff 24 So.2d at 40. More recently, Florida Courts of Appeal have held that trial courts are authorized by law to order not only autopsies, but exhumations, when necessary, to determine the cause of death of the decedent, if the autopsy will provide probative evidence regarding the cause of death. See Esgro v. Trezza, 492 So.2d 422 (Fla. 4th DCA 1986). The Third District Court of Appeal in Landrum v. Armstrong World Industries, 535 So.2d 656 (Fla. 3d DCA 1988), approved the trial court’s order requiring an autopsy of a living plaintiff and exhumation, if necessary, if the plaintiff died before the lawsuit was completed. The Third District held that the requirement for an autopsy was well supported in Florida law and was relevant in that asbestos related products liability suit. Id. As stated by Whitmore on Evidence §2221 at page 197-198, “the exhumation or autopsy of a corpse, when useful to ascertain facts in litigation, should of course be performed. Reverence for the memory of those who have departed does not require us to abdicate the high duty of doing justice to the living ….” When involved in a case regarding allegations of wrongful death due to toxic or hazardous exposures or diseases caused by insidious or latent materials, chemicals, etc., both plaintiff and defendant should seriously consider requesting that an autopsy be performed, or if necessary, exhumation and an autopsy, to establish the cause of death within a reasonable degree of medical probability.