An incorrect ruling by a medical examiner about a cause of death can have a lasting emotional and financial impact on the living.
Cathy Wilson had to pay to have her husband’s body removed from his grave to prove what killed him. Three years later, she is still locked in a legal battle with the state and still shaken by the ordeal.
She and Jim Wilson were married 34 years, had three children and four grandchildren. They lived in a home built with beautiful, rough-hewn wood gathered not far from this mountain town on the western edge of North Carolina. The day before Jim Wilson died, they celebrated his 60th birthday with a steak and gravy dinner and his favorite butter pecan pound cake.
Jim Wilson had a wonderful sense of humor, Cathy Wilson said, and loved the outdoors. But the quality that endeared him to her most was how good he was with her daughters.
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Her first husband died in a car crash and her two girls were small when Cathy met Jim at Tri-County Community College, where she was studying cosmetology. Jim Wilson was getting his auto tech degree and asked her to cut his hair, which she would do for more than 30 years. They married in 1977, and five years later their third daughter was born.
On his 60th birthday, the kids and grandkids all came to dinner.
A deadly crash
Early the next morning, a rainy March 9, 2011, Jim Wilson drove his Toyota pickup along Bristol Avenue, heading to the foot doctor in Franklin. Cathy Wilson followed a couple of minutes later in her car, taking their grandson, Tyler, to school.
As Jim Wilson headed up the steep hill toward town, something happened that caused his truck to crash into a tree on the left shoulder of the road and overturn onto its side.
Though witnesses kept Cathy Wilson from the mangled wreckage, an emergency responder later showed her ruts from Jim’s truck tires in the mud on the right side of the road. Cathy Wilson suspects her husband was fiddling with his oxygen tank – something she warned him many times not to do – and lost control, went off the right side of the road, overcorrected and veered left across both lanes and into the tree.
On the crash report, Highway Patrol Trooper J. Cochran made no mention of tracks in the mud on the right side of the road. He wrote that “due to a medical condition (Wilson) was unable to maintain control of the vehicle.”
“We called the medical examiner and ... I told her what happened,” Cochran said. “The only thing he had was some bruising in his upper chest.”
An incorrect ruling
Jane Barwick, a family nurse practitioner who is medical examiner for Cherokee County, did not go to the accident scene. She did not order an autopsy despite N.C. guidelines that instruct medical examiners to request an autopsy on “any death where there is a reasonable suspicion that trauma (external force) may have been the cause or a contributing cause.”
Barwick examined Jim Wilson’s body at the hospital and found bruising on his abdomen and a laceration of his left eyelid, but concluded he died of a heart attack. She said it was due to ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and diabetes.
Cathy Wilson said she found out about Barwick’s ruling in the local paper, where the headline read: “Heart attack kills man in car accident.”
“Needless to say we were very upset,” she said. “Anybody could see it was just an accident. He broke the steering column. But she just didn’t do her job. I called her and tried to talk to her about it.”
Barwick did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, including multiple phone calls and a certified letter.
It was only when Cathy Wilson tried to collect on her husband’s insurance policies that she realized the consequences of Barwick’s ruling. Whether a heart attack killed him or whether injuries from the wreck killed him was an important distinction. Two of his life insurance policies paid only if his death resulted from an accident; the third policy paid more if his death was accidental.
“There was only one way to determine exactly what killed him,” her attorney, Ryan Gaylord, said. “An autopsy needed to be ordered. There was not sufficient evidence to base any kind of competent decisions on what killed Mr. Wilson without an autopsy. It’s simple accountability. There are legal consequences in the decisions medical examiners make.”
‘One of the hardest things’
Three months after Jim Wilson died, while her grief was still raw, Cathy Wilson paid to have his body exhumed from Valley River Cemetery and sent to Raleigh. There, the state’s chief medical examiner, Deborah Radisch, performed an autopsy. Cathy Wilson then paid to have her husband’s body brought back to Andrews and reburied.
It was an emotionally trying time – “just about one of hardest things I ever did,” she said. Her youngest daughter, Jenny, took it even harder.
“She was a daddy’s girl, the only child he really had that was his,” Cathy Wilson said. “They were joined at the hip, and she and Tyler (Jenny’s son) lived in the house with us.”
Four months after Jim Wilson died, Jenny died. “She just couldn’t come out of it,” Cathy Wilson said. Father and daughter are buried next to each other.
“Friends forever,” their tombstone says.
Results of the autopsy
The autopsy showed Jim Wilson did not die of a heart attack; he died of blunt force injuries to his chest caused by the crash. He suffered a fractured rib, fractured vertebrae and hemorrhaging around his colon.
Even that didn’t settle the issue.
Cathy Wilson said she was assured his death certificate would be amended to reflect the autopsy findings. But a new death certificate listed heart attack. Cathy Wilson got on the phone again. Finally, a third death certificate listed the correct cause.
The insurance companies paid up – around $300,000, she said.
Now she is trying to recoup another $250,000, including money she paid for attorney fees, exhumation and reburial, plus damages for emotional distress. In an answer filed with the N.C. Industrial Commission, an assistant state attorney general argued that Cathy Wilson was partially at fault because she failed to request an autopsy “at the appropriate time.”
The person who needed to request an autopsy was the medical examiner, Gaylord said.
“It’s more than just a Sunday-school lesson, if you will,” he said. “Do you need better-trained people doing this? Do you need somebody who’s able to commit more time to it? And how much do you pay them?”
Gavin Off and Fred Clasen-Kelly contributed.