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Talbott v. Wooster

Decided: April 19, 1960.


Schalick, J.s.c.


This is an action brought by the plaintiff to have the court expunge from the death certificate of record a statement that death was a suicide. The plaintiff is the widow and also executrix of decedent's estate.

The plaintiff contends that the coroner does not have the power to make a finding of suicide without holding an

inquest and summoning a jury under R.S. 40:40-1 et seq. , and in counties where there is a county physician, as well as a coroner, the rights of the county physician supersede those of the coroner, as defined in R.S. 40:21-23 et seq. , and further, the finding of suicide was not supported by the evidence.

Camden County is a county of the second class and has a county physician, and defendant is a duly elected coroner, but the office of county chief medical examiner has not been created under N.J.S.A. 40:21-30.1 et seq.

On August 16, 1959, at 5 A.M., the body of James N. Talbott was found in the garage attached to his home, with the garage doors closed. The coroner and police department were called, and the coroner instituted an investigation and later called upon the county physician who performed an autopsy. The investigation conducted by the coroner was thorough and, relying on the past conduct of the decedent, the attendant circumstances of his death, as well as the opinion of the county physician, the coroner found that it was an intentional self-destruction, or suicide, caused by carbon monoxide poisoning.

Evidence was produced before the court on behalf of the plaintiff indicating that death could have resulted within a few minutes if the motor of the automobile had been started in a closed garage, showing the temperature at that time, the percentage of emission of carbon monoxide from this motor, the size of the enclosure and other related facts, which proofs the plaintiff claims could reasonably lead to the conclusion of death by accident.

The depositions of the defendant and county physician were admitted in evidence as the defense. The coroner reasserted his opinion based on the location of the body, the condition of the motor at the time of the coroner's arrival, a previous threat by Talbott to commit suicide, resulting in a complaint by his wife and his committal to an institution, the conclusion of the county physician that death was caused by carbon monoxide, and other supporting factors.

N.J.S.A. 26:6-7 provides that a death certificate shall be filled out on forms provided by the State Department of Health, and on this form, under "supplemental information if death was due to external causes," there is included in the printed form "accident, suicide, or homicide." The coroner inserted "suicide" as the cause of death and signed the filed certificate.

Under the common law "The office and power of a coroner are also, like those of the sheriff, either judicial or ministerial; but principally judicial." 1 Blackstone Commentaries 348. The coroner's duties extended to the holding of an inquest whenever there was a reasonable suspicion attending the circumstances of death.

Our early statutes substantially reflect the common law in defining the duties of a coroner, requiring him to make proper inquiry respecting the cause and manner of death. If from such inquiry, the said coroner shall be satisfied that no person has been guilty of causing or procuring the death, and that there are no suspicious circumstances, he shall, without further proceedings therein, deliver the body to the friends thereof for interment. N.J.S.A. 40:40-6. The provisions of N.J.S.A. 40:40-8 deal with the requirement of an inquest with a jury to be presided over by the coroner, "If after view and inquiry the coroner shall have reason to suspect that the deceased came to his death by murder, manslaughter, or the contrivance, aiding, procuring or other misconduct of any person, and in counties having a county physician, upon the written request of such county physician * * *." These provisions are included in L. 1953, c. 37. Retained in the acts in reference to coroners, is the provision in R.S. 40:40-4 (Rev. 1877, p. 170, par. 3), " Except as otherwise provided by law as to ...

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