Is it necessary to obtain an autopsy for wrongful death cases in Tennessee?

wrongful death lawyer nashville

In this post, we answer frequently asked questions about death certificates and autopsies in Tennessee wrongful death cases.

1. How do I get a copy of the death certificate in Tennessee?

For every death, the Tennessee Office of Vital Records or the health department in the county in which the death occurred will issue a certified death certificate. You may request a death certificate here.

Importantly, a death certificate is different from a county medical examiner’s investigative report or a wrongful death autopsy.

2. Will a medical examiner investigate the wrongful death of my loved one?

Each county in Tennessee has a county medical examiner who is responsible for investigating deaths. Under Tenn. Code Ann. § 38-7-108, a county medical examiner must investigate the following types of death:

  • Deaths due to violence or trauma of any type;
  • Deaths occurring suddenly in a person in apparent good health;
  • Sudden, unexpected deaths of infants or children;
  • Deaths of prisoners or persons in state custody;
  • Deaths on the job or related to employment;
  • Deaths believed to represent a threat to public health;
  • Deaths where neglect or abuse of extended care residents are suspected or confirmed; and
  • Deaths in any suspicious/unusual/unnatural manner or found dead.

Some examples of wrongful deaths that a medical examiner will investigate include:

3. What does the “manner of death” mean on the county medical examiner’s report in Tennessee?

In Tennessee, deaths are classified in death certificates and medical examiner reports as follows:

  • Natural: deaths from exclusively natural causes with no external factors caused or contributing to the death.
  • Accident: deaths from an unintentional injury. Many, but not all, wrongful death cases are “accidental deaths.”
  • Homicide: death at the hands of other(s). You may have a viable wrongful death claim even if your loved was a “homicide” victim.
  • Suicide: death by one’s own hand. Our firm has successfully handled wrongful death cases involving suicides or overdoses in which governmental authorities, corporations, or other institutions contributed to the death.

4. Does the medical examiner or coroner have to perform an autopsy on my loved one?

An autopsy is the examination of a deceased person to determine the cause and manner of death. Autopsy reports often identify the factors that contributed to death and events that preceded the death.

In Tennessee, a county medical examiner, state medical examiner, or district attorney is not required to perform an autopsy for every death but they do order autopsies in some cases.

There are five forensic centers in Tennessee that perform autopsies: William L. Jenkins Forensic Center (Johnson City); Knox Regional Forensic Center (Knoxville); Hamilton County Forensic Center (Chattanooga); Forensic Medical Management Services (Nashville), and West Tennessee Regional Forensic Center (Memphis).

If the county medical examiner concludes an autopsy is warranted to determine the cause of death, the body will be transported to one of the above forensic centers. The family of the deceased will not be charged for an autopsy performed by a county or state medical examiner.

5. How do I obtain a copy of an autopsy report in Tennessee?

You may obtain an autopsy report here through The Office of the State Chief Medical Examiner or from the regional forensic center where the autopsy was performed. Most autopsy reports are completed within 10 to 12 weeks.

6. Is an autopsy necessary in a wrongful death case?

Autopsies can be very useful in wrongful death cases because they determine how a person passed away from a medical and scientific standpoint.

To win a wrongful death case, you must prove “causation” — the legal connection between a victim’s death and the at-fault party’s actions.  Thus, the evidence from an autopsy can be very helpful in proving causation. However, in some cases, there may be sufficient evidence to prove causation without an autopsy. Either way, the experienced wrongful death attorneys at DRS Law can assess your specific case and advise whether there is enough evidence to establish causation.

7. Can I request a private autopsy if the county medical examiner did not perform one?

If the county medical examiner did not perform an autopsy, you may be able to get a private autopsy.  The place to start would be calling a local teaching university hospital to see if they provide private autopsies or if they can refer you to someone who does. Unfortunately, private autopsies can be quite expensive.

If your loved one has passed away because of the negligence of another, contact the wrongful death attorneys at DRS Law today. 


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