North Carolina did away with coroners more than 45 years ago. Coroners did not have to have any medical expertise to do their jobs, a shortcoming when it came to investigating causes of death. The state adopted a new system that used medical examiners instead. Recently, officials, including a former chief medical examiner, are wondering if this system is meeting the state’s needs.
Medical examiners are responsible for investigating suspicious and violent deaths in their jurisdictions. They conduct what the law terms “postmortem medicolegal examinations.” As defined in statute, medical examiners take charge of the body, make inquiries about the cause and manner of death and submit written findings to the state’s chief medical examiner.
The medical examiner is the official who decides which category a death falls into: homicide, suicide, accidental, undetermined or natural. While we are most concerned with the deaths ruled homicides, the medical examiner’s decision has more implications than some might imagine.
For example, say a man is the major breadwinner of his family, and he is killed in a car accident. If his death is ruled accidental, his family will be able to collect on his life insurance. If, however, the death is ruled a suicide, the life insurance policy won’t pay; his family faces financial ruin.
Now, if the medical examiner says the man’s death was from natural causes, the family will get the life insurance benefits. But if the medical examiner has missed evidence showing that another driver was at fault, the family will not be able to make a civil claim for damages against the other driver.
With the tick of a box, people’s lives can change. Or a crime can go undetected.
We’ll continue this in our next post.
Source: News & Observer, “Suit challenges NC medical examiner’s work,” Fred Clasen-Kelly, April 27, 2013