There are three underlying reasons that are most common for families to request an autopsy.
1) Answer questions family members may have regarding their loved one’s death. Often loved ones cannot achieve closure if lingering questions regarding the cause of death are not answered. An autopsy often brings closure to families.
2) Provide important information regarding genetic diseases that allow surviving family members to manage their healthcare. Medical advances in the treatment of many diseases are predicated upon DNA mapping and knowing how and why ancestors passed away. Knowing about inherited genetic diseases and disorders is important to treat these previously untreatable diseases.
3) Legal purposes including medical malpractice, elder abuse, and wrongful death. Often an autopsy is needed to prevail in these types of litigation and legal claims.
Many pathologists and autopsy services advertise prices thousands below what you will pay. While not technically illegal (in most cases), these advertisements are misleading and dishonest.
Sunshine Autopsy never plays the bait-and-switch pricing game.
Below is a list of the most common costs and expenses that are rarely disclosed ahead of time (except for the pathologist fee):
The largest cost of providing an autopsy is the pathologist fee. This is the amount that the doctor is charging.
However, unlike traditional doctor services, the doctor doesn’t have all of the facilities or staff needed to provide the autopsy and typically has the customer contract with other companies for these services.
Believe it or not, most autopsies are performed in funeral homes (not in doctor’s offices or hospitals). The funeral home receives a facility rental fee and typically will have a specialized room for autopsy services (specialized lighting, ventilation, and safety equipment is required).
The vast majority of doctors that perform private autopsies do not have an office and rent funeral home space for each procedure.
When you call a doctor (or service) to inquire about an autopsy, the price typically does not include the facility rental fee.
Sunshine Autopsy owns its surgical suite and never charges a facility rental fee.
Transportation is almost always required for an autopsy. The deceased individual must be brought from the morgue to the autopsy facility and back to the morgue.
Sunshine Autopsy owns its vehicles and provides transportation for others. We never charge more for transportation.
A morgue (holding facility) is required for an autopsy. The decedent needs to be kept at a cold temperature to prevent uncontrolled decomposition, and sometimes, depending upon the required laboratory work, several days of cold storage are required.
Sunshine Autopsy owns a morgue and never charges extra for storage.
Not all lab costs are included in any autopsy service.
At Sunshine Autopsy, our price includes the most typical lab costs. However, additional charges may be required if there are specialized lab needs (such as enhanced toxicology). We never incur these charges without your prior approval.
Not all pathologists are created equal – what to look for in a forensic pathologist.
Forensic pathologists are people that have personal strengths and weaknesses and work histories. You should know if your case ends up in court, your pathologist will do well as a witness.
Below are some pointers and how Sunshine Autopsy can help.
Avoid Out-of-Town Agencies
Out-of-town agencies “call around” when they get an autopsy in South Florida. I know because we get called by out-of-town agencies all the time.
The out-of-town agencies have no idea who is a good doctor and who to avoid. Worse, they don’t know who will hold up in court and who will lose the case for you.
At Sunshine Autopsy, we have long-term relationships with our pathologists, and our staff includes senior litigators that mentor our pathologists to ensure they are great witnesses.
Be Careful About the Work History of the Pathologists
Many forensic pathologists that perform private autopsies have dubious work histories and cannot be hired by hospitals and medical examiners. Those pathologists are at the “bottom of the professional barrel” and, after being banned by medical institutions, earn their living performing private autopsies for consumers that can’t screen for quality and don’t know about their prior misconduct.
Pathologists with questionable work histories should be avoided at all costs. And, because of their work histories, they make terrible witnesses.
Sunshine Autopsy carefully screens our pathologists’ professional histories for skeletons in the closet that can be used against them in court and/or should be avoided for other reasons. And, since we are lawyers ourselves, we know what we are doing.
If your case goes to court, the testimony of your pathologist will make or break your case.
Most forensic pathologists are terrible expert witnesses.
The nature of a pathologist (someone who went to 13 years of college, medical school, and residency to spend their time by themselves examining dead bodies) is most often that of an introverted scientist. Unfortunately, introverted scientists don’t make good expert witnesses.
They can’t explain themselves in a manner that people who do not have their education and training can understand. And, coming off as an introverted scientist on the witness stand does not typically work well.
Our staff screens all of the pathologists utilized by Sunshine Autopsy to make sure that our doctors will make good witnesses and will be able to explain their findings in a manner that ordinary people can understand.
Many doctors won’t testify against other doctors. Make sure the pathologist has a track record of not only testifying against other doctors but also on the winning side of the lawsuit.
Having an autopsy performed by a doctor who, if they discover medical malpractice, won’t testify against other doctors is worthless.
You have no way of knowing which forensic pathologists will call out other doctors and “do what it takes” to hold their fellow professionals responsible for their bad acts. We do, and if you retain Sunshine Autopsy, you do not have to worry about your pathologist hurting your case while protecting his/her peers.
While the cause of death can only be confirmed through an autopsy, such procedure is “backward-looking” – it only tells you what happened but not what will happen in the future to children and grandchildren.
Only through DNA testing can you find out if your loved one had a genetic predisposition for the disease that killed him/her and if such predisposition has been passed on to future generations.
DNA testing is very cost-effective (the cost varies based upon the type of screening required) but including DNA storage (for future testing) it typically costs less than $1,500.
Even if you think you know what killed your loved one, it is still a good idea to have his/her DNA tested.
For example, suppose your loved one was overweight and died of cardiovascular disease (a heart attack). An autopsy will not provide relevant information that will protect future generations.
But, DNA testing may determine if there is a family predisposition to cardiovascular disease (which can be treated). DNA testing can even predict which foods will make future generations fat (and therefore to avoid) and which foods will be digested normally and should not be avoided. So, DNA testing can improve the quality of life for the next generation at the same time as it provides life-extending information.
It is not the job of the medical examiner to answer questions presented by families in most deaths if there isn’t a credible possibility of criminal activity or a public health imperative.
Also, depending upon the jurisdiction, the county medical examiner may also perform an autopsy when there was an unexpected death (typically not in a healthcare facility) or traumatic death. As a result, most deaths fall outside the jurisdiction of the county medical examiner.
The county medical examiner typically does not get involved in possible medical malpractice investigations nor do they answer most families' questions regarding the death of a loved one.
No. After someone has passed it is unusual for a hospital to perform an autopsy.
There are five (5) primary steps to an autopsy:
1) Pre-autopsy assessment. The pre-autopsy assessment provides the pathology team a general idea of how and why the decedent passed away and their recent medical history. This step provides the pathology team a general idea of what they are looking for and why. However, the pre-autopsy assessment is just a starting point to determine the cause of death and answer other questions presented by the family.
2) The deceased is examined and dissected. This process is also sometimes referred to as gross examination. The process of examination and dissection takes place in a clinical theatre (at Sunshine Cremation/Kronish Funeral Services) and important organs are examined, photographed, measured, and weighed. Samples of organs, fluids, and tissues are collected for subsequent laboratory examination.
3) Laboratory examination. The samples that were collected in Step #1 are studied. This process takes place in various laboratories. Laboratory examination typically takes four weeks but if cultures need to be grown, the timeline can extend considerably.
3) Review of Medical Records. The review of the decedent’s medical records often is the most important and most time-consuming part of the autopsy process. Medical records review can take up to six months (or even longer). There are two reasons the review of the medical record taking so long to complete. First, hospitals, nursing homes, and physicians are typically not eager to provide medical records (even though they are legally required to do so) and make every effort to stall and delay. Second, full medical records for an individual that was hospitalized may have thousands and thousands of pages, all of which must be reviewed by the pathologist. This review can take days, or even weeks, of tedious effort so as not to miss an important detail.
Preparation of the report. The last step in the autopsy is the preparation of a written report which is provided to the decedent’s family or legally authorized representative. By the time a written report is prepared, the pathologist will most likely have established the immediate, intermediate, and underlying causes of death as well as the manner of death. Also, any inconsistencies between the medical records and causes of death will be identified and medical provider errors established. Depending upon circumstances, the autopsy report may be long and detailed or short and provide summary conclusions.
An autopsy should take place within a few weeks of death and prior to embalming.
Sunshine Autopsy has cold storage facilities for the decedent so that families should not feel pressured to make a decision regarding an autopsy before they are ready.
Although toxicology analysis will be impossible to perform after embalming. If medical malpractice, wrongful death, or other legal action is contemplated, it is best to perform the autopsy prior to embalming.
It depends. An autopsy report can be very long and detailed or short and provide summary conclusions.
Considerations on the length of the autopsy report include cost (more detailed reports cost more money because of the additional time required for drafting), the intended use of the report (for example a report intended to be introduced into legal proceeding is different from a report that is prepared for family purposes) and the work performed prior to drafting the report.
Autopsies are performed by forensic pathologists. All of Sunshine Autopsy’s pathologists are also employed as Medical Examiners in various counties within the state and are widely regarded as leaders in the profession.
This can be a complex legal question. However, generally, the next of kin is required to authorize an autopsy. To the extent that there are multiple parties who are the next of kin (such as multiple children of the deceased), it is best if all parties agree on performing the autopsy.
The funeral viewing can take place prior to, or after, an autopsy. Sunshine Autopsy’s affiliated funeral home provides restorative cosmetology at no additional cost so that a funeral viewing (also known as a wake) can take place.
Forensic toxicology is the study of fluid samples taken from the decedent.
The toxicology study is performed at a specialized laboratory and can take a few weeks to several months.
Forensic toxicology is intended to determine the effect of drugs, alcohol, and poisons on the decedent.
Review autopsies are performed when there are questions regarding the first autopsy.
An autopsy is almost always needed to prevail on wrongful death, medical malpractice, or elder abuse claims.
However, before incurring the high cost of an autopsy, we recommend a full legal review of the potential lawsuit and an assessment of prevailing in the suit established.
In Florida, it is very difficult to win a medical malpractice suit and before performing an autopsy a lawyer should evaluate your claim. If a lawyer says that they will review your claim after seeing the autopsy report, call a different lawyer (or call Sunshine Autopsy and we will connect you with counsel that will review your case (at no cost) prior to recommending an autopsy).
A private autopsy can be expensive.
Typically costs range from $6,000 to $7,000. However, in certain cases, the costs can be considerably more.
Costs increase if specialized laboratory work is needed (such as when certain neurological studies and slides are required) and when medical providers charge high fees for access to medical records.
There are typically four (4) different classifications of causes of death that a forensic pathologist will identify.
1) The immediate cause of death – the final disease or injury that caused the death. For example, a heart attack that caused the decedent’s heart to arrest would be an example of an immediate cause of death.
2) Intermediate cause of death – a disease or condition that triggered the immediate cause of death. For example, cardiovascular disease (blocked arteries) would be the trigger that caused a complete blockage and cardiac arrest.
3) The underlying cause of death – a disease, condition, or injury present before, and leading to the intermediate or immediate cause of death. It can be present for years before death. For example, obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure can be the underlying cause of death for a decedent that died of cardiac arrest.
4) Manner of death – the circumstances leading to death including accident, homicide, suicide, unknown or undetermined, and natural causes. For example, a decedent that died of sudden cardiac arrest at home would have passed from natural causes.