Volume 39, Issue 3 (May 1994)
Standard Language in Death Investigation Laws
Death investigation statutes and practices vary among the 50 states. We reviewed the Model Postmortem Examinations Act, recommendations of the National Association of Medical Examiners, the College of American Pathologists' “criteria for autopsies,” and the death investigation statutes and practices in each state. By consolidating the terminology from these various information sources, we developed a list of death categories for which investigation by medical examiners or coroners in the United States is either mandated, commonly performed, or recommended. The list contains specific categories of death, which fall under these three more general areas: 1) unexpected and unexplained deaths, 2) deaths from intentional and unintentional external causes, and 3) deaths that fall under specialized categories related to the decedent's age, environment, or medical conditions, or to the method of bodily disposition. To promote greater uniformity in the death investigation practices among states, we recommend that the Model Postmortem Examinations Act be modified to explicitly recommend certain types of deaths for investigation and that states modify their death investigation statutes to conform to such provisions. Presently, in states where death investigation statutes lack specificity in detailing the types of deaths that should be reported for possible medico-legal investigation, our recommendations, if not in conflict with local statutes, might be used as practice guidelines for the reporting and investigation of certain types of deaths.