Responsibilities of the Coroner Division
The responsibilities of the Coroner Division are complex. By state law it is the responsibility of the Coroner Division to inquire into and determine the circumstances, manner and cause of deaths (COD) which fall within its jurisdiction. These deaths include any suspected homicide, suicide, or accidental deaths. These also include any natural death were there either is no physician to sign a death certificate, or the physician is legally prohibited from doing so. Additionally, other certain causes of death are also mandated to be investigated.
The manner and COD inquiries may require reviews of medical records, interviews with family members or witnesses, and postmortem examinations. The forensic pathologists (FP) are doctors specifically trained in forensic pathology. The FP’s perform autopsies, collect evidence, bodily fluids and tissue for toxicology testing and microscopic study. Upon completion of these tests the FP’s analyze the results to determine COD. The COD is used to complete the decedent’s death certificate. Evidence collected during autopsies and at the scene of the death can be used for criminal prosecution as well as determining COD. FP’s are frequently called to court to testify as to the results of these examinations. The coroner division is constantly on alert for deaths which may pose a threat to public health from communicable disease or through product liability.
The coroner division’s responsibilities also include the identification of decedents. Identification may be as simple as matching the decedent to a driver’s license or other identification documents. The identification process may need to utilize fingerprints, dental records, body x-rays or DNA testing. Identifying the decedent’s next of kin, notifying them of the death and securing the decedent’s personal property are additional responsibilities of the department. In deaths where the decedent died at scene, deputy coroner investigators (DCI) are responsible for removal and transportation of the decedent. DCI’s will also obtain information from family, friends, and public safety personnel regarding the terminal episode. The DCI’s serve as the eyes, ears, and hands of the FP’s in the field. The coroner division works with numerous medical and law enforcement agencies to understand how these people lost their lives, to seek justice, and bring closure to families.
Pending Death Certificate
After performing an autopsy, the forensic pathologist (FP) can issue a “pending” cause of death (COD) and “pending investigation” manner of death. A death certificate (DC) listing “pending” will be issued by the Department of Public Health (DPH).
After the FP completes the autopsy protocol (AP) report, the DC will be amended by DPH to reflect the official COD and manner of death. This process can take three to six months, and sometime even longer, due to the complexity of investigation, toxicology reports, histology reports and other testing and / or investigations that may be necessary to determine COD.
Copies of DC’s are often needed to make insurance claims, collect pension benefits, transfer titles and to complete other official financial business. A pending DC can be used as proof of death. Some institutions will consider the pending COD document sufficient to complete certain transactions, such as closing accounts. However, many institutions (such as insurance companies) may not accept a pending DC and will require the official COD.
Answer: The following is a list of the deaths the Coroner Division is required by law to investigate:
- Unattended deaths. (No physician in attendance or during the continued absence of the attending physician.
- Wherein the deceased has not been attended by a physician in the 20 days prior to death.
- Physician unable to state the cause of death. (Unwillingness does not apply.)
- Known or suspected homicide.
- Known or suspected suicide.
- Involving any criminal action or suspicion of criminal act.
- Related to or following known or suspected self-induced or criminal abortion.
- Associated with a known or alleged rape or crime against nature.
- Following an accident or injury (primary or contributory). Deaths unknown or suspected which resulted in whole or in part from a related accident or injury, either old or recent.
- Drowning, fire, hanging, gunshot, stabbing, cutting, starvation, exposure, acute alcoholism, drug addiction, strangulation or aspiration.
- Accidental poisoning. (Food, chemical, drug, therapeutic agents.)
- Occupational diseases or occupational hazards.
- Known or suspected contagious disease and constituting a public hazard.
- All deaths in operating rooms and all deaths where a patient has not fully recovered from an anesthetic, whether in surgery, recovery room or elsewhere.
- In prison or while under sentence.
- All deaths of unidentified persons.
- Suspected sudden infant death syndrome (crib deaths).
- All deaths of state hospital patients.