The system of death investigation in Clark County transitioned from a coroner system to a medical examiner system on January 1, 1999. This change was initiated by the Clark County Board of Commissioners and then approved by the voters of Clark County in the fall of 1996. The authority to make this change came in 1996 when the Washington State Legislature passed a statute (RCW 36.24.190) which provided that counties with a population of 250,000 or more could adopt a medical examiner system to replace the elected coroner system.
To be appointed medical examiner, the statute requires that the individual be either certified as a forensic pathologist (physician) by the American Board of Pathology, or be a pathologist eligible to take the examination for certification within one year of appointment and pass the exam within three years.
The primary role of the medical examiner is to investigate the deaths of individuals over which he/she has jurisdiction; the purpose of the investigation is to determine the cause of death. The types of deaths which the medical examiner has jurisdiction over include those resulting from:
- deaths from unknown or obscure causes
- deaths while in jail or prison
- deaths under suspicious or unusual circumstances
- deaths constituting a threat to the public health
The investigation is usually performed in conjunction with a police agency and includes collecting information concerning the circumstances surrounding the death and obtaining the medical and social history of the deceased. The autopsy is a test used by the pathologist to identify injuries and diseases and to collect specimens for toxicology. An autopsy is required in many cases and is used in conjunction with the investigation to determine the cause of death. Medical-legal Death Investigation and Autopsy: Answers for families and friends (PDF 54KB) is provided by the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME).
The medical examiner is also responsible for initiating and signing death certificates of individuals when jurisdiction over the deceased is assumed. The medical examiner formulates an opinion as to the manner of death (homicide, suicide, accident, natural, or undetermined). Death certificates are completed by the funeral home and filed with Vital Records. For information on obtaining a death certificate contact Vital Records.
The office provides services as needed seven days a week.