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AGO 1979 No. 13 - May 25, 1979
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Slade Gorton | 1969-1980 | Attorney General of Washington

OFFICES AND OFFICERS ‑- COUNTY ‑- CORONER ‑- JURISDICTION OVER CERTAIN BODIES

The jurisdiction of a county coroner under the first clause of RCW 68.08.010 extends to the body of a deceased person who, although not physically seen by a physician or other medical practitioner within the 36 hours preceding death, was generally under a physician's care for a number of years prior to his death and died ". . . under circumstances which the family physician considers consistent with the serious medical condition with which the deceased had been previously treated for a number of years."

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                                                                   May 25, 1979

Honorable James E. Carty
Prosecuting Attorney
Clark County Courthouse
P.O. Box 5000
Vancouver, WA 98663

                                                                                                                 Cite as:  AGO 1979 No. 13

Dear Sir:

            By letter previously acknowledged you requested our opinion on a question involving the jurisdiction of the county coroner over the bodies of persons who died under certain circumstances.  We paraphrase your question as follows:

            Does the jurisdiction of a county coroner under the first clause of RCW 68.08.010 extend to the body of a deceased person who, although not physically seen by a physician or other medical practitioner within the 36 hours preceding death, was generally under a physician's care for a number of years prior to his death and died ". . . under circumstances which the  [[Orig. Op. Page 2]] family physician considers consistent with the serious medical condition with which the decreased had been previously treated for a number of years"?

            We answer this question in the affirmative for the reasons set forth in our analysis.

                                                                     ANALYSIS

            RCW 68.08.010 provides as follows:

            "The jurisdiction of bodies of all deceased persons who come to their death suddenly when in apparent good health without medical attendance within the thirty-six hours preceding death; or where the circumstances of death indicate death was caused by unnatural or unlawful means; or where death occurs under suspicious circumstances; or where a coroner's autopsy or post mortem or coroner's inquest is to be held; or where death results from unknown or obscure causes, or where death occurs within one year following an accident; or where the death is caused by any violence whatsoever, or where death results from a known or suspected abortion; where self-induced or otherwise; where death apparently results from drowning, hanging, burns, electrocution, gunshot wounds, stabs or cuts, lightning, starvation, radiation, exposure, alcoholism, narcotics or other addictions, tetanus, strangulations, suffocation or smothering; or where death is due to premature birth or still birth; or where death is due to a violent contagious disease or suspected contagious disease which may be a public health hazard; or where death results from alleged rape, carnal knowledge or sodomy, where death occurs in a jail or prison; where a body is  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] found dead or is not claimed by relatives or friends,is hereby vested in the county coroner, which bodies may be removed and placed in the morgue under such rules as are adopted by the coroner with the approval of the county commissioners, having jurisdiction, providing therein how the bodies shall be brought to and cared for at the morgue and held for the proper identification where necessary."  (Emphasis supplied)

            After the underscored first clause of the statute with which we are here concerned, there thus follows a concise catalogue of some of the more commonly employed means of violent or unexplained death‑-including other innovations that evince public interest such as contagious disease.  Under all such circumstances the coroner may assert jurisdiction over the bodies of deceased persons. And, as a general matter, the listed causes of death invite the coroner's attention because they share the common property of being unusual, violent, unexplained or otherwise of public concern.  Moreover, this is consistent with the historic duties of the office of coroner.  From the genesis at common law, it was his principal duty to inquire into the manner of a person's death if there was any reason to suppose that the death was not due to natural causes.  See, 17 Am.Jur.2d, Coroners or Medical Examiners 516.  We believe that the first clause of the section should be interpreted in that context.  When a person dies "suddenly" without medical personnel in attendance and appearing to those around him to be in good health, it is also a circumstance that may invite inquiry in the public interest.

            The statute does not define "apparent good health" or "medical attendance."  Therefore, those terms should be defined according to their usual and ordinary meaning.  Marino Property Co. v. The Port of Seattle, 88 Wn.2d 822, 567 P.2d 1125 (1977). According toWebster's Third International Dictionary, 1966, apparent means:

            "capable of easy perception, as readily perceptible to the senses, especially sight, or capable of being readily perceived by the sensibilities or understanding as certainly existent or present."

             [[Orig. Op. Page 4]]

            Thus, it may have been that the decedent suffered from a malady which reasonably could have caused or in fact did cause his death.  However, using this definition, if this malady was not readily perceptible to those around him, even if it was known to his physician, the decedent would have been in "apparent good health" in the sense of RCW 68.08.010, supra.

            The further jurisdictional condition of death "without medical attendance" has existed since 1953.  See § 1, chapter 188, Laws of 1953.  The qualification that such attendance has not occurred within 36 hours preceding death was added in 1963, by § 1, chapter 178, Laws of 1963.  The legislative history of this latter section provides no insight into the definition of its terms or the purpose of the amendment.  In our opinion, however, the plain expression "without medical attendance" in the 1953 version was to be construed as relating to the moment of death.  Thus, a coroner's jurisdiction under the original law would extend to all situations where there was no medical attendance at the moment of death, even though a doctor may have seen the decedent only a few hours before.  In many such situations there would have been no public interest in or need for coroner inquiry.  Therefore, the 36-hour rule was added to establish a more or less arbitrary but necessary cut-off point after which any medical attendance would obviate coroner jurisdiction.

            What meaning, then, should attach to the term "medical attendance"?  "Medical" is defined as relating to, or concerned with physicians or with the practice of medicine, often as distinguished from surgery.  Webster's Third International Dictionary, 1966.  "Attendance," in ordinary usage, means the act or state of being in waiting or service;i.e., being present or visiting professionally as a physician.  Webster's Third International Dictionary,supra.

            On the basis of the foregoing analysis of the critical statutory language, we therefore answer your question, as above paraphrased, in the affirmative.  The jurisdiction of a county coroner under the first clause of RCW 68.08.010,supra, does extend to the body of a deceased who, although not physically seen by a physician or other medical practitioner within the 36 hours preceding death, was generally under a physician's care for a number of years prior to his death and died ". . . under circumstances which the family physician considers consistent with the serious medical condition with which the deceased has been previously treated for a number of years."

             [[Orig. Op. Page 5]]

            In short, it is our opinion that a coroner obtains jurisdiction over a deceased's body under the first clause of the statute unless (1) it was perceptible to those about the decedent that he was in bad health or (2) unless a physician or other medical practitioner treated, examined or physically and directly extended care to the decedent within 36 hours prior to death.  In the case posited by your question, however, neither of those two disqualifying circumstances exists.  First, it was not perceptible to those about the decedent that he was in bad health, and second, a physician or other medical practitioner had not treated, examined, or physically or directly extended care to the decedent within 36 hours prior to death.1/

             We trust that the foregoing will be of assistance to you.

Very truly yours,


SLADE GORTON
Attorney General



KEVIN M. RYAN
Assistant Attorney General

                                                         ***   FOOTNOTES   ***

1/It must be recalled, of course, that we are here only concerned with the first clause of RCW 68.08.010, supra.  It thus goes without saying that the person could have been in perceptibly poor healthand subject to medical attendance within 36 hours preceding his death and yet, under some other provision of the same statute, the coroner would still have jurisdiction;e.g., a person who is obviously suffering from a given malady and who is subject to daily medical contact with his doctor who, while on his way home from the doctor's office, is struck and killed by an automobile.

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