Coroner’s Office investigates record number of deaths

LISBON – Monday’s death of an Akron man from suspected natural causes was the 124th case investigated this year by the Columbiana County Coroner’s Office, eclipsing the old record of 123 set in 2003.

“I’m telling you this is not looking good for us,” said Brandi Phillips, chief coroner’s investigator. “We still have two more months left, and November and December are usually busy.”

The coroner’s office has investigated between 90 to 110 questionable deaths per year on average over the past 10 years, and investigated 116 in 2012.

Phillips is at a loss to explain why the number has skyrocketed this year. While drug overdose deaths are up – with 20 confirmed overdose deaths so far this year compared to 16 for all of 2012 – it is not significant enough of an increase to have an impact on the overall number of cases. The number of homicides, suicides and traffic fatalities all are running slightly behind last year’s figures.

“There really is no rhyme or reason,” she said. “I wish I had a good answer for you.”

Phillips offered two possible explanations, the first being an increase in the number of people dying without a family physician, who has the option of signing off on the cause of death if the death is believed due to natural causes because of the person’s medical history and condition.

“A lot of people don’t have a doctor because they don’t have insurance or the money,” she said. Without a family doctor to sign off on the cause of death, the matter is automatically referred to the coroner’s office to make the determination.

Phillips said doctors are sometimes reluctant to sign off on a cause of death, depending on the circumstances. “Everyone’s fearful of being sued and sometimes (doctors) are not comfortable signing it, and that’s OK. That’s what we’re here for,” she said.

Whatever the reasons, Phillips, coroner Dr. William Graham Jr., and deputy investigator Sunny Bowers are having a tough time keeping up with the record year.

“We’ve not been able to catch our breath. When we do get caught up then something like Saturday happens,” she said, referring to the death of Matthew Bailey from apparent blunt force trauma.

This was followed by the Akron man found dead in his camper in Butler Township on Monday. The 26-year-old man works at at local gas well site, and there is no sign of foul play,

“Anything other than a natural death has to go through the coroner’s office,” Phillips said.

Fortunately, only a handful of coroner cases require a $1,230 autopsy, which is what the Summit County Coroner’s Office charges for the service. The coroner’s office makes the decision on a case-by-case basis, depending on the circumstances of the death, available medical records, and other information.

“Any suspicious death we take. There are some cases you automatically autopsy, like infants, any baby under the age of 2. That’s state law,” Phillips said.