Frequently Asked Questions: Medical Examiner

What is a medical examiner?

A medical examiner is a forensically trained pathologist who is specifically appointed by county governments and the Florida Medical Examiner's Commission to investigate violent, suspicious, unattended or unnatural deaths. The duty of a medical examiner is to focus on the medicolegal investigation of these deaths to determine the cause and manner of death. A medical examiner's office usually has a team of investigators who assist law enforcement personnel in their investigations.

What is the jurisdiction of the medical examiner in Alachua County?

The District Eight Chief Medical Examiner is appointed by the governor and the government of Alachua County from a list of qualified nominees that is submitted by the Medical Examiner's Commission. The Eighth Judicial District consists of Alachua County and five surrounding counties, including Bradford, Gilchrist, Levy, Union and Dixie Counties, which contract the Alachua County Medical Examiner's services.

The jurisdictional authority and responsibilities of Florida's Medical Examiners' Commission and the county medical examiners are defined by Chapter 406 of the Florida statutes. The Commission's authority includes the monitoring, supervising and disciplining of medical examiners. It is also responsible for providing the governor and legislature with information about the activities of medical examiners throughout the state.

When and why is the medical examiner's office involved?

If a person is not under the care of a physician; if death is sudden and unexpected; if it appears to be suspicious or unusual ( for example, the result of injury, violence or suicide), the medical examiner's office must be notified according to Florida statute 406.11. An investigation must be conducted before a death certificate will be issued. Should a medical examiner assume jurisdiction, the decedent will be transferred to the medical examiner's office for examination.

What is a forensic autopsy?

A forensic autopsy is an intricate post-mortem medical procedure which often requires complex laboratory tests. All the major organs are examined to document injury, disease or the lack thereof. The approach is comparable to a hospital autopsy, but requires additional testing not routinely part of the hospital autopsy.

Why would a medical examiner investigate a death if there was no criminal action?

Criminal violence is only one of the categories requiring investigation by the Department. More than 80 percent of medical examiner investigations involve accidental deaths and natural deaths for which no doctor is available to sign a death certificate.

Why is it necessary to investigate the expected death of someone who died under the care of a doctor in a hospital or other health care facility?

Because there is often a delay — sometimes measured in years — between injury and death, it is easy to overlook an accident or other trauma that caused the condition for which the decedent was being treated when death occurred. For example, a case involving a person who fell, broke a hip, developed pneumonia and died would require review by the medical examiner.

Is an autopsy always necessary in medical examiner cases?

In the event of a natural death when adequate medical history exists and there are no signs of foul play or public health issues, an autopsy is not normally required. A medical examiner usually has to investigate these deaths because either the attending physician is not available to sign the death certificate or funds are not available to bury the deceased. An autopsy is normally conducted in all other instances.

Autopsies are important reports used to determine the cause of death and, in criminal cases, to establish the material facts. Additionally, this procedure may document previously undiagnosed diseases that may be inherited. It also provides vital information to families filing insurance and other claims.

Who is responsible for contacting a medical examiner?

The physician attending to the patient at the time of death is responsible for contacting the appropriate medical examiner from the county of the patient's residence or in which the specific event occurred that led to the patient's death.

When should a medical examiner be contacted?

In accordance with Florida statute 406.11 (Examinations, Investigations and Autopsies):

"In any of the following circumstances involving the death of a human being, the medical examiner of the district in which the death occurred or the body was found shall determine the cause of death and shall, for that purpose, make or have performed such examinations, investigations and autopsies as he or she shall deem necessary or as shall be requested by the state attorney. When any person dies in the state:

  1. Of criminal violence;
  2. By accident;
  3. By suicide;
  4. Suddenly, when in apparent good health;
  5. Unattended by a practicing physician or other recognized practitioner;
  6. In any prison or penal institution;
  7. In police custody;
  8. In any suspicious or unusual circumstance;
  9. By criminal abortion;
  10. By poison;
  11. By disease constituting a threat to public health; and/or
  12. By disease, injury or toxic agent resulting from employment."

When a death occurs in one of these categories, the statute also provides a medical examiner the authority to perform whatever autopsies or laboratory examinations that are deemed to be in the public interest.

Additionally, any death involving cremation; burial at sea; donation to science; or removal of the body from the state must first be referred to a medical examiner for approval, who will review the cause of death information to ensure that jurisdiction under 406.11 does not exist.

How can I obtain a copy of the medical examiner's report?

An autopsy report can be obtained from the Medical Examiner's Office by mailing a brief letter of request and a stamped self-addressed business-size envelope (with two first-class stamps affixed) to the Medical Examiner Department at the following address:

District 8 Medical Examiner's Office
606 SW 3rd Ave.
Gainesville, FL 32601

Depending on the type of testing required to determine the cause and manner of death, a completed report may not be available until 8 - 12 weeks after the death.

Administrative inquiries to District Eight can be made by calling 352.273.9292, Monday through Friday, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., eastern standard time.

How can I obtain a copy of somebody's death certificate?

Copies of death certificates are available from decedents' funeral director or the Alachua County Vital Records Office, which can be reached by calling 352.334.7970.