Why was an autopsy performed on Dale Earnhardt?

I thought autopsies were performed in cases where the cause of death was uncertain, or where foul play might be suspected. But listening to CNN yesterday I just happened to hear something about Dale Earnhardt’s autopsy revealing the fact that his death was caused by blunt force trauma to the skull.

Wasn’t this pretty obvious to anybody who watched it on TV? Or on the news? Or on all the re-runs & talk shows? How about the people that pulled him out of the wreckage? Wouldn’t it have been pretty clear to them (or at least to the paramedics or ER doctors) that this was a routine case of somebody getting his head bashed in and subsequently dying?

Is it routine for automobile accident victims to be autopsied? This seems to me a little like executing somebody via guillotine and then sending the pieces off to the lab to find out why s/he died.

The only other cases that I know of where autopsies have been performed when not actually necessary are when the family or next of kin requests one. But again, in this case I think it would have been pretty clear what did him in. Why would the family have wanted the body cut open? I think I would be very much opposed to having my family member sliced open if their cause of death was as obvious.

Autopsies are performed for a number of reasons. Those that would apply would be that this was a sudden death of a man not under a doctor’s care and not admitted to a hospital within the previous 24 hours (which would be required by law). It’s also possible that the family and/or NASCAR requested one. (Usually, if the family requests one, it’s for insurance purposes, although I’ve seen autopsies performed at the hospital I used to work at that were trying to prove or rule out specific service-related conditions.) And, no, autopsies are not reserved for questionable deaths.

What they will likely look for is not only the specifics of the injury(ies) that caused Mr. Earnhardt’s death, but also for possible underlying factors. These may include toxicology tests, tests for particular illnesses and/or other injuries that may have precipitated the crash.

And, FTR, autopsies are always performed on those executed to make sure the decedent really died at the hands of the state without undue injury.


They did do an autopsy on Dale Earnhardt. I read about it on http://www.cnnsi.com earlier today. If not mistaken, this link will take you to the correct page.

According to what I read he did not die of a broken neck (his vertebrae were intact) but his skull was fractured from front to back and he also suffered eight broken ribs and other trauma.

I read they were going to perform a toxicology report, but I haven’t heard any findings as of this afternoon. A newer report may be released now.

My apologies, Attrayant…I misread your opening thread line. I read it as “WAS there an autopsy performed…”, not “WHY was there an autopsy performed…”

My error. It’s been a really rough week. :frowning:

I can’t say for sure, since I’m not generally following the details of this tragedy, but it could be to find out if there was something wrong before the crash that may have caused him to lose control of the car, like a heart attack or stroke, or more uncharitably, drugs of some kind (though from what I’ve heard about Earnhart, that’s unlikely).

It is obvious that he died in a car crash, but there are many things that could have lead to the crash. The autopsy could determine if he had a heart attack, that caused him to lose control of the car. Or if his reflexes were impaired by some recreational chemical. Or if he was struck by a sniper’s bullet immediately before the crash. Sure, it’s probably going to be blunt force trauma after a bad break on the racetrack, but an autopsy can make sure of that.

My WAG is that the information they get from the autopsy might help design safer race cars and tracks. The fact that his skull was broken but his neck was intack might lead to subtle changes in… uh, heck I dunno.

I think Silkythreat’s got it. There were really at least 2 possible causes for the death. It could have been him hitting something (blunt force trauma). Or it could have been his head moving beyond the limits of his neck (broken neck). The broken neck presumably could have been prevented by the HANS device they’ve been discussing, while the impact injury would not have been.