Gwinnett Medical Examiner criticized for ignoring grieving families who need death certificate

Bill Calder and Hope Torretti on their wedding day. After she died of natural causes in their Loganville home in January, it took Calder 71 days to get a death certificate. The Gwinnett Medical Examiner's office declined to take the call. (Family pho

Anyone who’s had a loved one pass away understands the importance of a death certificate.

It’s a legal document needed to settle that person’s affairs, to claim life insurance benefits or cancel a cell phone plan. It’s even required before a body can be cremated.

But one metro county is under fire, accused of making a terrible situation even worse by refusing to help obtain death certificates.

"This is an ongoing thing in Gwinnett County," complained state senator Rick Williams. "It’s hard to believe in that one county it can have this many problems, but it does."

Gwinnett County is one of five in metro Atlanta that hire a private medical examiner to handle death investigations rather than electing a coroner for that role.

Records show Forensic Pathology Services, Inc. is paid a flat fee of $1.6 million to respond to death calls in Gwinnett County.

But the company doesn’t see all death calls as its responsibility.

In January, Bill Calder’s wife Hope died in her sleep. Gwinnett Police and emergency personnel arrived quickly, but there was nothing they could do.

In fact, the only people who could truly help that night in Loganville decided they were not coming.

The Gwinnett Medical Examiner declined to take the case.

"She’s not a medical examiner patient," the on-call medical examiner investigator told Gwinnett police when they contacted him from the scene. "We’re declining. She can be released to the funeral home."

The Georgia Death Investigation Act requires a medical examiner to handle all cases involving natural deaths "when unattended by a physician."

For Cobb, Clayton and Fulton Counties, they respond to all natural deaths unless the person is in hospice care.

DeKalb County urges funeral homes to find the decedent’s physician and ask them to sign the death certificate. If they run into a delay — say the doctor is reluctant to sign because they haven’t seen the patient recently — DeKalb takes jurisdiction and solves the issue.

But Gwinnett's policy is unique: for a natural death, it’s up to the funeral home and family members to track down a doctor.

Bill Calder's wife had just had surgery, but he said the hospital doctors were not helpful. She had not recently seen her primary physician.

It would take him 71 days to finally get someone to sign the death certificate.

"It’s put our family through hell to be honest with you," he said. "We’re all still recovering."

Nancy Diaz doesn't understand why the Gwinnett Medical Examiner's Office didn't respond to her father's death at home. It took nearly three weeks for the funeral home to find a VA doctor to sign his death certificate, a doctor Nancy says her father n

Nancy Diaz’ father passed away at her home in Suwanee April 16. She wanted the Army veteran cremated and his remains sent to be buried in his native Puerto Rico.

But the funeral home struggled to find a doctor at the VA willing to help.

For Nancy, it took nearly three weeks to get that important document.

"Waiting so long for a death certificate, it should not take that long for the family," she argued. "The Gwinnett Medical Examiner did not want to sign the papers."

Dr. Carol Terry's company is paid a flat fee of approximately $1.6 million to handle all death cases in Gwinnett. She declined to answer questions for this story.

Why does Gwinnett take this position? Medical Examiner Dr. Carol Terry would not respond to our emailed questions.

In her written bid for the most recent Gwinnett contract in 2020, Dr. Terry wrote, "when a private physician refuses to sign the death certificate on his/her patient, the added burden of subpoenaing medical records, reviewing these records and signing the death certificate falls upon the Medical Examiner."

Dr. Terry went on to say "this situation further stresses an already overburdened and overworked system."

But Senator Williams blames Dr. Terry.

"I’ve not had this situation in Fulton or DeKalb or Cobb or Clayton," said Williams, who also owns a funeral home in Milledgeville. "Those are being handled. Those medical examiners are operating as they should."

Sen. Rick Williams (R-Milledgeville) says he only gets complaints about one metro medical examiner. 

He helped push through new legislation that would provide legal immunity for physicians who sign death certificates. That new law takes effect in July.

In that 2020 bid to Gwinnett County, Dr. Terry pointed out how much lower her costs were per call compared to other counties with medical examiners. 

In 2021, the FOX 5 I-Team reported how a group of former employees accused Dr. Terry of forcing them to work overtime for free. A lawsuit is still pending. The Gwinnett Medical Examiner has since limited all employees to a 40-hour work week.

Former employees say even before that change, the policy was to decline natural death calls like Bill Calder’s wife.

He eventually paid $9000 for a private autopsy. It determined his wife died of heart complications.

Calder finally got the death certificate signed by a doctor in DeKalb County who reviewed the autopsy findings but had never seen his wife.

"We have something wrong with the Gwinnett Medical Examiner office," he said.