A Death Certificate can be an important piece of evidence in a wrongful death case. When a defendant disputes the cause of the decedent’s death, the plaintiff may attempt to introduce in evidence a Death Certificate which lists the cause of death. However, the defendant may seek to exclude the Death Certificate, or at least the portion of it that states the cause of death, based on the provisions of Massachusetts G.L. c. 46, §19.
That statute provides, in relevant part:
The record of the town clerk relative to a birth, marriage or death shall be prima facie evidence of the facts recorded, but nothing contained in the record of a death which has reference to the question of liability for causing the death shall be admissible in evidence.
(Emphasis added). The question is whether the portion of the Death Certificate listing the cause of death can be excluded by arguing that this section contains a “reference to the question of liability for causing the death.”
Massachusetts courts have considered and rejected this argument. In Wadsworth v. Boston Gas Co., 352 Mass. 86 (1967), the Supreme Judicial Court explained that:
A practical construction of the statute requires that a record which relates directly and mainly to the treatment and medical history of the patient, should be admitted, even though incidentally the facts recorded may have some bearing on the question of liability. A similar rule of construction governs the admissibility of entries in death certificates (G.L. c. 46, s 19). Where the words have reference to the injuries of the deceased, they are admissible, even though incidentally they may have some bearing on the question of liability.
Id. at 92-93 (emphasis added, internal quotation marks omitted), citing Trump v. Burdick, 322 Mass. 253 (1948). See also Comm. v. Lannon, 364 Mass. 480, 484 (1974); Blake v. Southcoast Health System, Inc., 206 F.Supp.2d 174, 179 (D. Mass. 2002) (“There can be little doubt but that the medical examiner’s opinion as to the cause of death is generally admissible”) rev’d on other grounds, 329 F.3d 43 (1st Cir. 2003); Riccio v. Horwitz, 17 Mass. L. Rptr. 329, 2004 WL 330272, * 1-2 (1/12/04).
In Riccio, the Superior Court summarized the law on this issue:
[R]egarding the admissibility of the “cause of death” entries on death certificates, the Supreme Judicial Court has held that “[w]here the words have reference to the injuries of the deceased, they are admissible, even though incidentally they may have some bearing on the question of liability.” Wadsworth v. Boston Gas Company, 352 Mass. 86, 93 (1967). The words “Probable Pulmonary Embolism” refer to a medical condition and circumstances which, when viewed in isolation, do not ascribe fault to any particular person and, when viewed in the context of this medical malpractice action where the cause of death is vigorously contested, the words are not dispositive….
The language in the death certificate does not impute fault; it merely reflects the medical opinion of the attending physician, Dr. Dienhart, that the cause of death was respiratory arrest due to, or as a consequence of, probable pulmonary embolism. Therefore, although the death certificate is probative on the issue of liability, otherwise it would not be admissible, the opinion expressed therein is admissible by statute.
2004 WL 330272, *1-2. (Footnote references omitted).
Of course, a statement in a Death Certificate ascribing fault or liability to a particular person would not be admissible. But so long as the Death Certificate simply states the cause of death without expressly dealing with fault or liability, it should be admissible in its entirety.