Is an Autopsy Necessary in a Wrongful Death Case in Georgia?

Police coroner examining dead body corpse in morgue.

Police coroner examining dead body corpse in morgue.An autopsy is a surgical procedure to determine the cause and manner of a person’s death. Not every death requires an autopsy. However, an autopsy may be necessary when an unexpected or suspicious death occurs, whether due to illness, injury, homicide, or other suspected factors.



What Types of Cases Require an Autopsy?

Generally speaking, authorities can order autopsies without consent from the person’s next of kin if the cause of death is unknown and authorities suspect any type of foul play. That could include homicide, suicide, accidental deaths, and unexpected or unexplained deaths. When authorities order an autopsy to gather information and determine the cause and manner of death, it is called a forensic autopsy. Governmental authorities may also order an autopsy if they suspect a person’s death may present a public health hazard. For example, the deceased may have died from a deadly infectious disease or due to toxic exposure. When the authorities order autopsies, a medical examiner conducts and evaluates the autopsy in the medical examiner’s or coroner’s office. In most cases, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation medical examiner’s office completes an autopsy the day or the day after the deceased’s body arrives. After an autopsy is complete, the medical examiner typically determines the cause and manner of death right away and issues their final Autopsy Report within roughly four weeks. If the autopsy is complex or additional testing is required, the medical examiner may require six to 10 weeks before issuing a report.

What Deaths Do Not Require an Autopsy?

An autopsy is not required for all deaths. Autopsies are generally not necessary when a person dies due to a known medical condition or disease, adequate medical documentation exists to support the assumption of death by natural causes, and there are no indications of foul play.

When Must an Autopsy Be Performed Under Georgia Law?

According to the GBI, Georgia law stipulates that an autopsy must be performed when:

  • A person dies as a result of violence.
  • A person dies by suicide or casualty.
  • A person dies suddenly despite apparent good health.
  • A person dies unexpectedly and unattended by a doctor.
  • A person dies in a “suspicious or unusual” manner, especially if they are 16 years old or younger.
  • A person under the age of seven dies unexpectedly and inexplicably.
  • A person is executed per the death penalty.
  • An inmate of a state hospital or local penal institution dies.
  • A person dies after being admitted to a hospital in an unconscious state and without regaining consciousness within 24 hours of being admitted.

If Georgia law does not automatically require an autopsy, a medical examiner may still decide an autopsy is necessary based on the information they receive about a patient’s manner of death. Georgia law does not require medical examiners to ask permission from surviving family members before performing an autopsy. State medical examiners are also the only ones who can “order” autopsies. However, surviving next of kin can request examinations by contacting the GBI Division of Forensic Sciences. In some cases, a complete autopsy may be mandatory. A full autopsy involves a thorough examination of the body’s exterior and an internal assessment of the body’s major organs. However, if someone dies of natural causes, their medical history demonstrates the likely cause of death, and no foul play is detected, the medical examiner may choose to perform an external or limited autopsy. When medical examiners conduct autopsies, they release reports of their findings afterward. Autopsy reports include the examiner’s opinion regarding the cause and manner of the individual’s death. The five possible manners of death are:

  • Natural
  • Accidental
  • Homicide
  • Suicide
  • Undetermined

In this case, “homicide” does not necessarily mean a person died by murder or manslaughter. “Homicide” simply means a person’s death was the result of another person’s direct or indirect actions.

What Should You Do If You Believe You Have a Wrongful Death Claim?

If you suspect you may have grounds for a wrongful death claim in Georgia, you can begin taking action by:

  • Contacting a knowledgeable wrongful death attorney – Wrongful death claims can be challenging to establish and prove. An experienced Georgia wrongful death attorney can help you determine whether you may have grounds for a claim and whether you are personally eligible to file that claim. Under Georgia law, only surviving spouses, children, parents, or personal representatives of the deceased’s estate can file a wrongful death claim.
  • Working with your attorney to prepare your claim – Your attorney can help you investigate the circumstances surrounding the wrongful death, gather valuable supporting evidence, calculate losses, and determine who may be legally responsible.
  • Negotiating with the at-fault party for a settlement – Most personal injury and wrongful death cases settle out of court. Your attorney can bring a solid claim to the negotiation table and serve as an advocate for your interests.
  • If necessary, filing a complaint and taking your case to trial – If the other side won’t agree to a fair settlement, your attorney can pursue your case in court and take it to trial if necessary.

Find out How Butler Kahn Can Help You with a Wrongful Death Claim

If you believe your loved one may have died a wrongful death, the attorneys at Butler Kahn want to help. We are equipped to handle the complex and time-consuming aspects of your case while you focus on grieving and supporting your loved ones. Many families find solace in contacting an attorney to seek justice on behalf of the deceased. When your family is ready to explore the legal options available, contact us for a free and confidential consultation.

Picture of Jeb Butler
Jeb Butler’s career as a Georgia trial lawyer has led to a $150 million verdict in a product liability case against Chrysler for a dangerous vehicle design that caused the death of a child, a $45 million settlement for a young man who permanently lost the ability to walk and talk, and numerous other verdicts and settlements, many of which are confidential at the defendant’s insistence. Jeb has worked on several cases that led to systemic changes and improvements in public safety. He has been repeatedly recognized as a Georgia SuperLawyer and ranks among Georgia’s legal elite. Jeb graduated in the top 10% of his class at UGA Law, argued on the National Moot Court team, and published in the Law Review. He is the founding partner of Butler Kahn law firm. Connect with me on LinkedIn
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