Coroners In The USA

From watching such TV shows as CSI and reading Patricia Cornwall books , my understanding of a coroner in the USA is that they have a medical background and investigate all aspects of sudden deaths including conducting actual autopsies. This is different to the situation in England and Wales ( I don’t know the set-up in Scotland ) . The coroners here are lawyers and not medics. They preside over a coroner’s court and call upon expert and other witnesses to determine the cause of a sudden death. This is their only roll. My question is do you have coroner’s courts in the US and are they conducted along the same lines as over here? If this is so then I presume the coroner would need to have both a legal and medical background to act as a judge in the court.

IANAL but I believe that Medical Examiners here are government officials (not doctors in private practice). Although they may have some knowledge of what is legally required for certain things to happen in a trial, I don’t think they go through a lot of legal training. When the opinion of an M.E. is required in court, they are brought in as a forensic expert witness.

Here’s hoping that all those years of watching Quince paid off.

Quincy, not Quince. :smack:

Originally coroners were elected officials over here, and need not have been either doctors or lawyers. There are a couple of jurisdictions where something like that is still true (and a professional person from one would have to make clear what “something like that” entails there).

In general, the office of coroner as it was is replaced by “Coroner,” “Coroner’s Physician,” or “Medical Examiner,” synonymous terms used in different jurisdictions describing a medical doctor trained in forensic medicine and named to pronounce on deaths (as opposed to pronouncing death, done by the attending physician and, where cause of death is not suspicious, grounds for the coroner/ME to accept the cause of death specified by the attending physician) and to investigate those of a sudden or suspicious nature.

The coroner here in Pittsburgh/Allegheny County is an M.D. and a J.D.

Dang. I hit reply too soon.
I meant to add that his name is Cyril Wecht, and he is well-known nationally in the medicolegal arena, having served as an expert witness in numerous high-profile cases.

Just to reiterate the second part of my question. Do the coroner’s investigations take place in a court-room setting? That’s what happens over here. The coroner ( usually a solicitor of long standing in the town ) acts as judge. Sometimes he has a jury , other times not. Witnesses are sworn in under oath and are subject to questioning by both the judge and sometimes a lawyer representing relatives of the deceased or other interested parties.

The judge and/or jury then decide the cause of death. This could be accident , misadventure ,suicide , murder by person or persons unknown or even an “open verdict” where the actual reason for the death cannot be determined. If the death is the result of a criminal act then it is up to the police and the Director of Public Prosecutions to instigate a legal trial.

Actually, coroners in the UK and Ireland (but not Northern Ireland or Scotland) can be either medics OR lawyers, they’re just usually lawyers.

Unfortunatley I learnt this from one of the Dublin coroner’s officers, who was giving one of my Medical Jurisprudence lectures while brandishing a large mercury thermometer that he said “has been in the rectum of every body I’ve seen for the last 20 years”.
Nice imagery.

Also, it’s not just sudden deaths that need to be reported.
eg If an old person fell down stairs, broke their hip, but died 6 months later in hospital from pneumonia due to being bed-bound, the death would be referred to the coroner. Cause of death would be the fall, not the pneumonia, and a death by misadventure, accident or even murder (if they were pushed) would be recorded.

I didn’t mean to say UK, sorry. I meant “England and Wales”.

I don’t think any state has anything that is the equivalent of the coroner’s court. Medical Examiners may be called as a witness in a trial to testify about cause of death, but never conduct an investigation of their own. The district attorney’s office, working with the police, makes the decision about whether a death is prosecutable for whatever reason and then issues charges leading to an arrest.

But what about sudden deaths?
An autopsy would have to be performed if the cause of death is unknown, and thus the coroner would have to be involved.

In the USA, are the Coroner and Medical Examiner different bodies?

I was under the impression that the US and British systems wer similar. is there an American doctor in the house? What happens if a patients dies suddenly?

In the U.S. Coroner and Medical Examiner are equivalent terms, just used in different jurisdictions. The trend is to rename the office of Coroner’s as Medical Examiner officers, but I don’t think there’s a legal distinction anywhere.

All suspicious deaths are handled by the Medical Examiner’s office, which are physicians. As I said earlier, they determine whether the death appears to be non-natural. If so, the District Attorney’s office decides on a charge. The ME has no other powers. The U.S. and British systems differ widely in this.

In some small communities, the coronor/medical examiner is a private doctor who certifies cause of death in any case where a person dies outside a hospital or nursing home. It’s not an official governmental position – the town might designate one or two doctors to be on call if needed. There are more than one so that the coroners don’t have to be available all the time. In these areas, the need for a coroner isn’t all that great – maybe once or twice a month – so there’s no need for a full-time position.

Many jurisdictions still use coroner’s juries. Here is information from Rock Island County, Illinois, which happened to come up first when I Googled.

It sounds like this is pretty similar to the system in Britain. However, one might wonder what is the point:

So if I may broaden the question, why does either the U.S. or the U.K. have coroner’s juries? Didn’t people trust the coroner to do the job acting alone? Perhaps this made sense when coroners were elected officials, but the tendency in recent decades has been to make the office appointive.

Definitions for coroner and medical examiner vary. IN some places a coroner is exactly the same thing as an ME in another area. In some areas you have concurrent coroners and MEs.

In some places coroners have no professional medical or legal training.

For example coroners in Orange County, California are peace officers. After being appointed as coroners they take 80 hours of training and go on their way.

From what I understand in West Virginia (where I was born and used to live) is just the person who investigates the crime scene, will do a cursory examination of the body et cetera. But for larger “medical” issues that may arise in the investigation the coroner has to call in a doctor who has training in forensic pathology to take care of the more specialized and highly technical aspects.

Los Angeles County’s (the largest county in the United States in terms of population) Coroner’s Office has a professional administrator as a director and then a doctor who has the title of Chief Medical Examiner Coroner, Dr. Lakshamanan Sathyavagiswaran.

When I worked with someone from Sri Lanka, he drilled me on pronouncing that guy’s name. They call him by a nickname when he testifies in court.

That said back in the 1920s, a great uncle of mine was a coroner in a rural county in Illinois. He was a veterinarian. And apparently not even regarded well enough by his own brother to be used on his own farm.
He was also sheriff, treasurer and a few other county offices. The county didn’t allow anyone to reelected to consecutive terms, so they just rotated offices each time they came up for election.

There are still several counties in the United States where the job of coroner is elected.