J Clin Pathol 53:367-373 doi:10.1136/jcp.53.5.367

What is a natural cause of death? A survey of how coroners in England and Wales approach borderline cases

  1. I S D Roberts1,
  2. L M Gorodkin2,
  3. E W Benbow1
  1. 1Department of Pathological Sciences, The University of Manchester, Oxford Rd, Manchester M13 9PT, UK
  2. 2Her Majesty's Coroner, Greater Manchester County, 5th Floor, City Magistrates Court, Crown Square, Manchester M60 1PR, UK
  1. Dr Roberts email: Ian.Roberts{at}
  • Accepted 9 August 1999


Aim—Many deaths fall in the “grey” area between those that are clearly natural and those that are unnatural. There are no guidelines to help doctors in dealing with such cases and death certification is often arbitrary and inconsistent. In an attempt to initiate debate on these difficult areas, and with the ultimate aim of achieving national consensus, the views of coroners in England and Wales were sought.

Methods—Sixteen clinical scenarios, with causes of death, were circulated to all coroners in England and Wales. For each case they were asked to provide a verdict, with explanation. The deaths fell into three groups: (1) postoperative, (2) a combination of trauma and natural disease, and (3) infectious disease.

Results—Sixty four questionnaires were returned. There was near consensus (> 80% concordance) in only two of the 16 cases. In five, there was no significant agreement between coroners in the verdicts returned (“natural causes” versus “misadventure/accidental”). These included all three cases in which death resulted from a combination of trauma and natural disease (a fall after a grand mal fit; falls resulting in fractures of bones affected by metastatic carcinoma and osteoporosis), bronchopneumonia after hip replacement for osteoarthritis, and new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The comments made for each case indicate that the variation between coroners in whether or not to hold an inquest, and the verdict arrived at, reflect the lack of a definition for natural causes, together with differences in the personal attitudes of each coroner.

Conclusions—There is considerable variation in the way in which coroners approach these borderline cases, many of which are common in clinical practice. This study indicates a need for discussion, working towards a national consensus on such issues. It highlights the importance of good communication between coroners and medical staff at a local level.