Death Certificate Only? Not the Death of Your Case

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If you have a wrongful death case involving an individual who passed away many years ago, you may encounter record retention policies that leave you with a filing cabinet full of “No Records” certifications from records custodians all over the country.  In fact, sometimes the only record you will have is a death certificate. But don’t despair – if you look closely, and are willing to do some extra legwork, you may sometimes be able to glean more information from this document than you thought.

While death certificates vary slightly from state to state most, if not all, have started following the U.S. Standard Certificate of Death since its approval by the Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary in 2003. But if your death certificate is for a patient who died prior to the 2003 revisions and updates, you may have a document with slightly different features from today’s model. Therefore, some of the changes the “Death Subgroup” made in 2003 may not be on certificates prior to this date (for example, questions regarding information on the pregnancy status of female decedents).  Generally, however, most death certificates are going to have about the same information. Obviously, the cause of death will be listed (but see: Cause of Death on Death Certificates: Not a Legal Conclusion), but there is other information in the form that may be useful, depending on the facts of your case.

  • Age/Date of birth – Sometimes a person’s age at death is an important clue as to what caused his death.  Age is a risk factor in many diseases since as a person ages, he/she is more likely to get a certain disease. But if a fairly young person has died with a certain disease, you may want to look into other causes.
  • Race – A person’s race or national origin may be another clue. Even if the decedent died in a car accident, his/her race or national origin may have affected life expectancy, which could be an important factor in your case. 
  • Residence – Check the residential county of the decedent, as well as the surrounding counties, and the locations of prior residences.  Information on the proximity of residences to EPA Superfund sites, wells with drinking water that contain arsenic or other types of groundwater contamination, nuclear or radiation testing labs, etc., may have bearing on your case. Sometimes you will find that the decedent or his/her family had prior litigation against companies with nearby environmental contamination issues, so you may want to try and obtain any discovery or settlement documents that are still available.
  • US Armed Forces – If the person served in the US Armed Forces, it should be indicated on the death certificate. Many members of the Armed Forces have been exposed to carcinogens and other toxins during their military service, depending on their branch, their time of service, their duties and their location.  This is another area which may warrant some additional legwork, depending on your case. Additionally, you can find lists of illnesses that are presumptively related to Agent Orange for certain Vietnam veterans published by the Veterans Administration online.
  • Occupation / industry – Occupational exposures are myriad, from ammonium hydroxide to zinc phosphide. Check the decedent’s occupation and field of work, but also do some digging around to determine the primary work he/she had been doing most of his/her life.  He/she might have been making birdhouses around the time of death, but driven diesel trucks, sprayed pesticides or tanned leather for 40 years prior to that. See the EPA’s List of Lists, aka “Most Hazardous Substances List” for information that may be helpful on such exposures.
  • Informant’s name – It would be surprising if the informant was someone other than medical personnel or a family member, so look at this carefully. If it is someone else, ask why.
  • Where the death occurred – If the death occurred somewhere other than a hospital or hospice type organization, or the decedent’s home, it may be worth checking into the reason the decedent was present at the location he/she died.  Other circumstances may be involved if the death occurred in locations outside, or at a home other than his/her own, and further investigation may be warranted, depending on the situation.

A death certificate can sometimes, but not always, lead to more information than only what is the on the face of the document itself – so don’t assume your case is dead in the water if that is the only record you have.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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