Jurisdiction (Why did our office get involved?)
Under California law the Medical Examiner is both required and empowered to determine the cause and circumstance of certain deaths. For additional details, see Government Code Section 27491 and the Health and Safety Code 102850. In general, deaths of a sudden and unexpected nature are investigated. All deaths related to any type of injury or intoxication must be investigated by our office. This includes deaths that are obviously due to trauma (such as motor vehicle related fatalities) and deaths that are known or suspected to be due to drug or alcohol intoxication. In addition, if an injury or intoxication merely contributes to the death - even in a small way - or is suspected to have contributed to death, the death falls under our jurisdiction. This applies to situations where an individual dies of complications of a prior injury, even if that injury occurred many years ago.
If required, transportation of the decedent’s body to our office will be arranged by the Medical Examiner through a private contractor. For the cost of transporting the decedent from the place of death to our facility, a transportation fee of $245 is charged to the person who directs disposition of the remains, together with the body pouch fee of $35. These combined charges of $280 are waived if the decedent was under age 14, and in most cases when the death is caused by the criminal act of another.
An examination will be conducted by a physician specializing in forensic pathology, to determine the cause of death, and a death certificate will be completed. This examination normally occurs within three days of our receipt of the decedent's body. Our forensic pathologist staff will assess whether an autopsy and/or laboratory tests are required as part of the examination. Autopsies (see below) are required in approximately 75% of the cases we examine. In the others, a examination of only the external surfaces of the body is performed. If we do not require an autopsy for our official purposes, the legal next-of-kin may request that we perform one at his/her expense, if desired.
An autopsy is a thorough surgical examination of the body, inside and out, performed to document injuries, diseases, and even normal conditions of the body. The procedure is performed by a medical doctor with special training in recognizing the appearance of injuries and the effects of diseases. An autopsy usually takes 2-3 hours to perform and is often followed by laboratory tests.
In general, the autopsy will not disfigure the body and it will be perfectly suitable for funeral viewing. The incisions that are made are in areas that are hidden by clothing, or are behind the head. Our staff has worked with local Funeral Directors for many years in an effort to preserve the body's appearance for viewing, whenever possible, and still fulfill our legal obligations and law enforcement function.
While we try to accommodate all the wishes of family members and the decedent, occasionally the circumstances of the death necessitate that an autopsy be performed despite the oppositions of the family or the decedent. Common reasons include the involvement of a law enforcement agency, mandates specified in California Law, and our legal obligation to investigate deaths under our jurisdiction.
If it is determined that an autopsy, external examination or toxicology analysis is required to determine or confirm the cause and manner of death pursuant to California Government Code Section 27491, tissue(s)/organ(s)/body fluid(s) may be retained for analysis and/or evidentiary purposes pursuant to California Government Code Section 27491.4. Tissues/organs/body fluids retained at autopsy or as part of any coroner investigative procedure will be disposed of pursuant to California Health and Safety Code Section 7054.4.
Release of the Body
The decedent’s body will be available for release soon after completion of the examination, which is generally within 48 hours of the death. Upon receipt of a signed authorization (Order for Release of Remains) from the legal next-of-kin, the decedent’s body will be released to a mortuary or other service (e.g. cremation society, transportation service) designated in the authorization. This form can also be used to authorize release of property.
The release may be signed by the legal next-of-kin authorized by law to direct disposition of the remains; this person sometimes differs from persons authorized to handle other aspects of the decedent's affairs. The mortuary normally provides the authorization form, obtains the proper signature, and then submits it to us.
At the scene of the death, the Medical Examiner Investigator may take custody of personal property belonging to the decedent. The property is logged, secured, and available for release to next-of-kin during normal business hours. If authorized by the next-of-kin, property may be released to the mortuary for its further delivery to the family. This authorization can be provided on the Order for Release of Remains described above.
In approximately 30% of our cases we are unable to record a definitive cause and/or manner of death on the death certificate immediately following our examination. After the exam is completed, it is sometimes necessary for us to perform microscopic, chemical or toxicological tests in order to determine the exact cause of death.
Often the mere existence of the death certificate – despite the cause and manner of death – will be sufficient to “prove” the death. However, some institutions (most often Insurance companies) require more detailed information than simply proof of the death.
A Certificate of Death letter can be provided to some institutions as proof of death. Certificate of Death letters can be requested through the administrative office of the Medical Examiner.
Obtaining copies of reports and the Death Certificate
You may request certified copies of the death certificate from the Vital Records and Statistics Office of the County's Health and Human Services Agency. Their phone number is (619) 692-5733. However, before contacting Vital Records, contact your mortuary. Many mortuaries provide copies of the death certificate when it is ready. Be sure to check if the mortuary you are working with provides this service.
Medical Examiner Reports.
In cases where the cause and manner of death are not determined at the time of the autopsy (in other words, pending further investigation), copies of the autopsy, investigative and toxicology reports will usually be available a few weeks after the cause of death is determined and a death certificate is filed. This can be as long as 90 days after the death, but it is usually sooner.
In cases where the cause and manner of death are certified at the time of the autopsy, the autopsy, investigative, and toxicology reports can take several weeks to complete (generally between 4 and 8 weeks, but it may take longer).
Reports are released only after all the reports (autopsy, investigative, and toxicology) and the death certificate have been completed. We do not prepare preliminary reports.
If you desire these reports, please write, email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or telephone this office with your request. If emailing your request, please provide your relationship to the decedent, your return address (if requesting hard copies), and your phone number in case we have questions.
Unsigned copies of reports can be provided via e-mail at no charge. Hard (signed) copies of reports are provided at a rate of $1.60 per page, plus the cost of postage. There is no charge for the first copy provided to the legal next-of-kin. Full list of fees.
If when you receive the reports you have questions, please call our office at (858) 694-2895.
- Death Certificates.