Medical Examiners’ Mistakes at Center of Lawsuit, P. 4

in Homicide, on

We are still talking about North Carolina’s medical examiners. Testimony given at a recent hearing held by the North Carolina Industrial Commission highlights some of the shortcomings of the current system, and lawmakers are wondering if the state should consider a more sophisticated approach. The current system, revolving around state-appointed county medical examiners, may have served the state well 45 years ago, but evidence is mounting that the system is not up to the challenges presented by death investigations nowadays.

As we have said in our past couple of posts, a death is not a homicide unless the medical examiner says so. A full investigation into the crime is not possible without a clear cause of death; generally, it is not possible to determine a definitive cause of death without an autopsy. Major issue with the current system: Not all medical examiners are physicians, so they must round up someone else to do the autopsy.

Another major issue: Not all medical examiners follow state-issued protocols when conducting death investigations. One reason may be that examiners do not receive training. They have a manual, but there is no requirement to complete a certain number of hours of training, and there are no state-sponsored medical examiner training programs.

And another major issue: When a medical examiner does a sloppy or less-than-thorough job, the chief medical examiner (a state employee and, by law, a forensic pathologist) has little recourse. The only thing the chief can do is to encourage medical examiners to follow guidelines and, in extreme cases, to rescind the appointments. But there are no fines to be levied, no penalties to mete out — these people are volunteers, after all.

The state is now facing several lawsuits related to the work of medical examiners. The examiners themselves are shielded from liability, the state says, because they are acting in their official capacities. But for families that have lost out on life insurance benefits because of an examiner’s failure to order an autopsy, or individuals who have been convicted of homicide or manslaughter based on evidence gathered in a mishandled death investigation, the state is perhaps reneging on its promise to protect its citizens.

Source: News & Observer, “Suit challenges NC medical examiner’s work,” Fred Clasen-Kelly, April 27, 2013