- What is the difference between a Medical Examiner and a Coroner?
A Medical Examiner is a forensic pathologist (Medical Doctor) with particular expertise in investigating violent, sudden and unexpected, suspicious or unattended deaths. A Coroner is an elected or appointed public officer whose chief duty is to determine causes of death. Historically, the Coroner system has been coupled with the Sheriff’s Department in most counties in California, who then subcontract to licensed Forensic Pathologists to perform the county’s autopsies. A few of the larger, more populated counties throughout the state have adopted the Medical Examiner system. San Diego County had a Coroner System until March 31, 1990, when it was replaced by the current Medical Examiner System.
- What types of death are investigated by the Medical Examiner?
In general, those deaths suspected to be homicides, suicides, accidents, or sudden unexpected natural deaths are investigated by the Medical Examiner’s Office. More specific situations are defined in two different sections of California Law: Government Code Section 27491 and Health and Safety Code Section 102850.
- Why is the Medical Examiner Office 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.
- How is the body transported to the Medical Examiner Office?
If required, transportation of the decedent’s body will be arranged by the Medical Examiner through a private contractor.
- What is an autopsy?
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. All of our doctors are Board Certified in Forensic Pathology. An autopsy usually takes 2-3 hours to perform and is often followed by laboratory tests.
- Do I have to pay for an autopsy?
There is no charge to the family for an autopsy that is required by the State of California. The cost is absorbed through the operation of the Medical Examiner Office and funded through tax dollars. In the event of a family-requested autopsy, a fee will be charged.
- Can I request an autopsy be performed?
If the Medical Examiner does not require an autopsy for official purposes, the legal next-of-kin may request that an autopsy be performed at their expense per California Government Code Section 27520. A deposit of $4,518 is required, in advance. This amount covers the cost of all autopsy services usually required. The cost for services not required will be refunded.
- Will an autopsy always be performed?
An autopsy is performed on approximately 2/3 to 3/4 of our cases. An autopsy may not be required when the death is known to be the result of natural causes, adequate medical history exists, and there are no signs of foul play. Autopsies are required when there is evidence or reasonable suspicion of foul play. In some accidental or self-inflicted traumatic deaths the interval between the injury and the death is such that there has been adequate medical documentation of the fatal injuries and other contributing factors, and there are circumstances when an external examination, scene investigation, and medical history allow adequate documentation of the cause and manner of death without an internal examination. We are not required by law to autopsy all non-natural deaths. At the discretion of the Medical Examiner, an external examination may be used to confirm the cause and manner of death.
- Are there mandatory service charges?
No, there are no services fees or charges to the family for an autopsy that is required by the State of California. The cost is absorbed through the operation of the Medical Examiner Office and funded through tax dollars. In the event of a family-requested autopsy, a fee will be charged.
- Will I still be able to have an open casket service if an autopsy is performed?
Yes. Autopsies are performed in a professional manner that does not interfere with the viewing of the deceased, provided that the body was in a condition suitable for viewing prior to the autopsy.
- Is viewing or visitation allowed while the body is under the jurisdiction of the Medical Examiner?
Viewing or visitation is not allowed while the body is at the Medical Examiner facility. This activity should take place at the mortuary chosen by the next-of-kin.
- How long will it take before the body is released from the Medical Examiner jurisdiction?
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 form) 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.
- Can a Medical Examiner case still be an organ or tissue donor?
Yes. Once family members have expressed interest, local tissue and organ procurement services work closely with the Medical Examiner to allow such donations whenever possible.
- What happens to the decedent’s personal effects?
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.
- Who contacts the funeral home and when?
The legal next of kin of the decedent selects a funeral home or crematory. The funeral director will take care of the remaining details. Advise the funeral home that the body is under the jurisdiction of the Medical Examiner.
- How do I obtain a certified copy of the death certificate?
You may request certified copies of the death certificate from the mortuary who will obtain them when they are ready from the Vital Records & Statistics Office of the County’s Health and Human Services Agency. The telephone number for the Vital Records Office is (619) 692-5733 if you wish to order copies directly. Death certificates older than 2 years may be obtained from the San Diego County Assessor/Recorder/County Clerk at (619) 237-0502. The Medical Examiner’s Office does not issue death certificates.
- What does "pending" mean on a death certificate?
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 arrive at the exact cause of death.
- The death certificate shows the cause of death as "pending" Can I use this as proof of death?
If a death certificate lists a cause of death as "pending", it will eventually be amended to reflect the actual cause of death, although this may take many weeks. A "pending" death certificate can be used as proof of death. If one is not immediately available, you may request a Letter of Certification of Death from our Office. Some institutions will consider this document sufficient to complete certain transactions such as closing a bank account. However, many institutions (such as insurance companies) will not accept a Letter of Certification listing a cause of death as pending, and require the actual cause of death. You may request a Letter of Certification by calling the main number at 858-694-2895 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- When will the Medical Examiner investigative, toxicology and autopsy reports be ready and how do I obtain copies?
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. If you desire these reports, please telephone or write or e-mail this office with your request.
- How much does it cost for a copy of a report?
Unsigned copies of reports can be provided via e-mail at no charge. Hard 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.
- Who can I call if I have questions about the Medical Examiner investigative, toxicology or autopsy reports I received?
Please call our office at (858) 694-2895 if you have any questions.