Death Certificate Not Conclusive in Wrongful Death Lawsuit


In legal proceedings, the cause of death listed on a death certificate does not automatically determine the outcome of a lawsuit. A recent decision by the Illinois Appellate Court, Wilson v. Dande, 2024 IL App (5th) 220552, sheds light on the complex interplay between legal procedures and medical certainty when establishing the cause of death in a wrongful death case.


The Plaintiff, Cheryl Wilson, acting as the special administrator of her late husband Leslie Wilson’s estate, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Dr. Amit Dande and Prairie Cardiovascular Consultants, LLP. The central claim was that the defendants’ negligent evaluation and treatment of Mr. Wilson directly contributed to his demise.

Mr. Wilson’s health issues surfaced in late June 2015 when he began experiencing fatigue and shortness of breath. His primary care physician referred him to Dr. Dande, an interventional cardiologist, who recommended a cardiac catheterization. On August 3, 2015, Mr. Wilson collapsed while mowing the pasture on his farm and subsequently passed away.

A Death Certificate Without an Autopsy Is Not Conclusive

During the trial, the admissibility of Mr. Wilson’s death certificate became a pivotal issue. The Plaintiff sought to have the death certificate admitted as evidence of the cause of death, however the death certificate explicitly stated that no autopsy had been conducted. Consequently, the trial court allowed only allowed the admission of the death certificate for the limited purpose of identifying the decedent’s date of birth, date of death, and the identity of the living spouse. The trial court ruled against publishing the cause of death to the jury, recognizing the potential for undue prejudice.

The Plaintiff, on appeal, contended that the death certificate should have been fully admissible under a statute that permits autopsy reports to serve as prima facie evidence of the facts, findings, opinions, diagnoses, and conditions stated therein in both criminal and civil proceedings. When something is prima facie, it is presumed to be legally true unless proven otherwise.

However, the appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision, citing a crucial absence of evidence: there was no indication that an autopsy had taken place. The coroner’s cause of death, lacking any factual basis, remained an opinion rather than conclusive evidence.


In conclusion, the mere presence of a cause of death listed on a death certificate is not dispositive evidence in a wrongful death lawsuit. Without an autopsy or proper factual foundation established as to a coroner’s findings and qualifications, the cause of death on a death certificate is simply speculative. A death certificate cannot stand alone as proof of the cause of death.

To learn more about this topic, or if you have questions, please contact Felicia Owen at or (312) 506-4456.

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