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Metro-North Death Reveals Legal Process for Challenging Medical Examiner's Rulings

September 4, 2015

Tamar Louis was struck and killed by a New York City-bound Metro-North train on the morning of Aug. 7. Witnesses told investigators that she had been sitting on the platform, legs hanging off the side, swinging back and forth.

Suddenly, she was on the tracks; to some, it appeared the 28-year-old Stamford woman dropped her purse. The oncoming train blared its horn, but Louis didn't move and was instantly killed after being struck.

Less than a week later, the state medical examiner ruled her death a suicide. Less than a month after that ruling, her family is challenging it.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled that Louis died of "blunt impact to head, torso, and extremities with fractures and visceral wounds" that were the result of a suicide, according to multiple media reports. Mark Sherman, a Stamford-based attorney who had represented Louis years ago in a domestic violence case, was initially working with the family to challenge the cause of death findings.

"I can say that she was not one to just — based on my work with her as a victim in a serious domestic case — not one to give up easily," Sherman said.

The challenge has since been handed over to Paul Slager, of Stamford-based Silver Golub & Teitell. "The family is now grieving for their daughter who they love very much," Slager said. "It's a very sensitive time and privacy is very important to them. We're looking carefully into the matter and hope to bring some closure to the family."

He declined to comment further on the case. But the matter has raised one interesting legal issue: In Connecticut, there is no formal process or administrative law hearing for those seeking a review of a cause of death, according to a spokeswoman from the Attorney General's office.

"It's not unusual to receive calls from families about the cause or manner of death. When we receive one, the medical examiner will explain the reasoning to the family," said Dr. James Gill, the state chief medical examiner. Gill will take into consideration any information a family gives to the office when they ask for a change on a death certificate.

Families can contact the office of the chief medical examiner to revisit a cause of death ruling, but a challenge reaching the courts is rare.

"Our death certificates are printed on paper and not engraved in stone, so we can and do amend them if we receive new information that affects our determination," Gill said.

Todd Fernow, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law and chair of the Commission of Medicolegal Investigations which oversees the medical examiner's office, said that in the past 20 years he can only recall two cases that have ended up in court. Fernow said it's easy to see why a family may challenge a cause of death listed as a suicide.

"It's very difficult for a family to deal with," Fernow said, citing reasons such as religion, insurance and simply the stigma attached to suicide. "There's a disconnect between the stigma and the clinical basis for making a finding," he added.

In some instances, the cause of death has been changed after a challenge is made to the medical examiner's office, particularly if new evidence is presented. But it's up the medical examiners to decde whether to revisit their initial decision. If, for some reason, the chief medical examiner refused to re-examine a file, Fernow's commission would examine the case.

If the medical examiner's office does not change a death certificate, a family is able to sue and argue for their desired change, according to Gill.

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