Communications with Physician Performing Autopsy
Opinion rules that a lawyer for an opposing party may communicate directly with the pathologist who performed an autopsy on the plaintiff's decedent without the consent of the personal representative for the decedent's estate.
Attorney A represents Decedent's Estate in a wrongful death case arising out of medical malpractice. An autopsy was performed on the decedent by a pathologist immediately following the decedent's death upon the authorization of the decedent's next of kin. The autopsy was performed prior to the retention of Attorney A to represent the Decedent's Estate and prior to the filing of the lawsuit.
Attorney C represents the defendant doctor and his practice group. Attorney C would like to contact the pathologist who performed the autopsy without informing or obtaining the permission of Attorney A or the personal representative of Decedent's Estate in order to discuss the pathologist's findings and conclusions regarding the decedent's death. May a lawyer contact the pathologist who performed an autopsy on a decedent whose medical treatment while living is the subject matter of a wrongful death case without the consent of the lawyer for the decedent's estate or the personal representative of the estate?
Yes, unless otherwise prohibited by statute or case law. The public policy of protecting a patient's right to privacy regarding his or her medical treatment is furthered by the prohibition on communications with a plaintiff's nonparty treating physician if the communications are by means other than the recognized methods of discovery in a civil lawsuit. See Crist v. Moffatt, 326 N.C. 326, 389 S.E. 2d 41 (1990) and RPC 162. However, the public policy interest in protecting a patient's right to privacy about his or her medical treatment is not relevant to an autopsy performed after the patient's death by a physician who is not providing the decedent with medical treatment. See Prince v. Duke University, 326 N.C. 787 (1990).
Does the answer to this question change if the decedent's autopsy was ordered by the medical examiner rather than her next of kin?
No. See Opinion #1 above.