Many Marylanders and even experienced personal injury lawyers are unclear of the law and policies regarding autopsies in Maryland. Below, in question and answer format, is a clear and concise discussion to the most common questions:
Q: What is an autopsy?
A: An autopsy is a series of tests and examinations performed on the body and its internal organs to determine the presence of an injury and/or to identify any disease that may have caused or contributed to the death of a person where the cause is not apparent. Additionally, special tests are performed to check for the presence of infectious diseases, alcohol and/or drugs.
Q: Why are they performed?
A: In Maryland, a death certificate must be completed by a doctor for all deaths before the body can be sent to the funeral home. When the person has a family doctor and dies from natural causes, the doctor can complete the death certificate and an autopsy may be unnecessary. However, if the person is not under the care of a physician or the death appears to be unusual or suspicious in nature or State law requires it, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner must be notified to begin an investigation and determine the cause of death so that the death certificate can be completed. Similarly, in some situations, a hospital or State-licensed physician may, with the permission of the decedent’s family, perform an autopsy.
Q: In Maryland, who decides if there will be one?
A: This answer depends on who the decedent was and the circumstances surrounding their death. In Maryland, an individual dying as a result of a homicide, poisoning, suicide, criminal abortion, rape, therapeutic misadventure, drowning, or dying in a suspicious or unusual manner, or a death of an apparently healthy individual or a case which is dead on arrival at the hospital shall be examined by the medical examiner in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore. In addition, in the case of a firefighter who dies in the line of duty, or a person who suffers a fire-related death, Maryland law dictates that the medical examiner must conduct an autopsy. Lastly, if the decedent died in a State-funded or State-operated facility, and the death appears unusual or suspicious in nature, the death shall be investigated by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. By contrast, a State licensed physician or hospital pathologist may perform an autopsy, with permission from the decedent’s family, on “non-medical examiner cases”, such as a stillbirth or neonatal death, a hospital death in which the cause of death has been established by a hospital physician and is due to disease, or when a decedent is dead on arrival to the hospital but the physician who pronounces death has previously treated the patient. Finally, when the decedent has a family doctor and dies from a natural cause such as from a disease, the family or hospital doctor can complete the death certificate and an autopsy may not be necessary, unless requested by the family.
Q: Can the family or anyone else request or prevent them?
A: Before an autopsy can be performed in the instance of a non-medical examiner death (death during hospital stay), the next of kin must grant permission. However, when state law requires a medical examiner to perform an autopsy, family permission is not required. A family may object to an autopsy because of religious beliefs. In this event, the Chief Medical Examiner must review the matter and determine, usually after speaking with the next of kin, whether it is absolutely necessary to perform an autopsy over a family’s objections. If the Chief Medical Examiner determines an autopsy is required, the family may ask the court to intervene and grant an injunction to prevent the procedure until a hearing can be scheduled. This will, however, delay the release of the body to the funeral home.
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