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Official Opinion 96-13

Official Opinion 96-13

August 8, 1996
To: 

Chairman
Georgia Coroner's Training Council

Re: 

The duties of law enforcement officers and emergency medical technicians to facilitate organ donations under O.C.G.A. ¿ 17-6-11(b.1) must be performed harmoniously with the coroner's duty to take charge of the body of a fatally injured individual as required under O.C.G.A. ¿ 45-16-24.

This is in response to your letter dated May 22, 1996. In this letter you ask this office to review the newly enacted provisions of O.C.G.A. § 17-6-11(b.1) regarding organ donations, in light of the provisions in the Georgia Death Investigation Act, O.C.G.A. §§ 45-16-24 and 25. It is my understanding that your specific inquiry is whether the provisions of O.C.G.A. § 17-6-11(b.1) regarding organ donation have precedence over the Georgia Death Investigation Act's mandate that a coroner take charge of dead bodies under certain circumstances.

Official Code of Georgia Annotated § 17-6-11, as amended 1996, states:

(b.1) It shall be the duty of a law enforcement officer or emergency medical technician responding to the scene of any motor vehicle accident or other accident involving a fatal injury to examine immediately the driver's license of the victim to determine the victim's wishes concerning organ donation. If the victim has indicated that he or she wishes to be an organ donor, it shall be the duty of such

law enforcement officer or emergency medical technician to take appropriate action to ensure, if possible, that the victim's organs shall not be imperiled by delay in verification by the donor's next of kin.

(Emphasis added.)

Official Code of Georgia Annotated § 45-16-24 provides the procedure by which the coroner or county medical examiner is notified in the event of a suspicious or unusual death. Official Code of Georgia Annotated § 45-16-25 defines the duty of the coroner or county medical examiner upon receipt of notice of a suspicious or unusual death. That Code Section states: "Upon receipt of the notice required by Code Section 45-16-24, the coroner or county medical examiner shall immediately take charge of the body. . . . It shall be the duty of a coroner notified as required by Code Section 45-16-24 to summon a medical examiner and proper peace officer." O.C.G.A. § 45-16-25(a)(1)-(2) (emphasis added).

The rules of statutory construction are applicable to your inquiry. "It is, of course, fundamental that the cardinal rule to guide the construction of laws is, first, to ascertain the legislative intent and purpose in enacting the law, and then to give it that construction which will effectuate the legislative intent and purpose." Hollowell v. Jove, 247 Ga. 678, 681 (1981); City of Jesup v. Bennett, 226 Ga. 606, 608 (1970). In determining the legislative intent, one must refrain from ascribing to the legislature a wholly unreasonable intention or an intention to do a futile and useless thing. City of Jesup, 226 Ga. at 609. "'The construction [of statutes] must square with common sense and sound reasoning.'" Tuten v. City of Brunswick, 262 Ga. 399, 404 (1992) (quoting Blalock v. State, 166 Ga. 465, 470 (1928)).

In enacting O.C.G.A. § 17-6-11, as amended in 1996, the General Assembly sought to encourage organ donation and to also facilitate the organ donation procedure. To that end, law enforcement officers and emergency medical technicians have been charged with the duty of determining an individual's wishes on organ donation. If it is determined that the injured individual wishes to be an organ donor, the law enforcement officer shall take appropriate action to preserve the organs if possible. Based on legislative intent and plain language, it is my opinion that the General Assembly intended for organ donation to be carried out as soon as practically possible.

Statutory construction must be based on common sense and sound reasoning. Tuten v. City of Brunswick, 262 Ga. 399, 404 (1992). To fully answer your inquiry, the practical implications of O.C.G.A. § 17-6-11 must be addressed. Under the Georgia Death Investigation Act, law enforcement personnel, county coroners, and county medical examiners are notified of suspicious or unusual deaths. See O.C.G.A. §§ 45-16-24, -25. These officials are charged with investigating the cause of death and taking appropriate action to preserve evidence. Many times, these officials are all present at the accident scene or at the hospital. The cooperation of these parties is essential, not only in death investigations, but also in organ donation.

Official Code of Georgia Annotated § 17-6-11 states that organ donation should be facilitated "if possible." If the cause of death is not readily apparent, or if the coroner or medical examiner believes that organ donation will hinder a subsequent investigation and autopsy, organ donation would not be possible. Consistent with current practice, a law enforcement officer, coroner, and medical examiner should all consult before organ donation takes place. The coroner and medical examiner have the ultimate responsibility for preserving the evidence which may be revealed only through further investigation and an autopsy. If the coroner or medical examiner objects to organ donation to preserve evidence, organ donation is not possible and should not take place. The duties of law enforcement officers and emergency medical technicians to facilitate organ donations must be performed in conjunction with the coroner's duty to take charge of the body of a fatally injured individual.

Prepared by:

LAURA JONES FRENCH
Assistant Attorney General