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Pathologic Features of Fatal Falls From Height

Türk, Elisabeth E. MD; Tsokos, Michael MD

The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology: September 2004 - Volume 25 - Issue 3 - p 194-199
doi: 10.1097/01.paf.0000136441.53868.a4
Original Article

Deaths due to falls from height are common in urban settings. At the time the body is found, it is often unclear whether the mode of death is accident, suicide, or homicide. To assess the injury pattern in fatal falls from height with special regard to criteria that might be helpful in discrimination between accident, suicide, and homicide, respectively, we reviewed 68 medicolegal autopsy cases (22 females, 46 males, age range 13–89 years) of fatal falls from height regarding demographic data, findings at the death scene, results of the postmortem examination, psychiatric history, and toxicologic findings. Among the 68 cases, there were 34 suicides, 23 accidents, and 11 unclarified cases, in 3 of which homicide was suspected. In general, suicides were from greater heights than accidents (mean height 22.7 m for suicides and 10.8 m for accidents, respectively; 79% of suicides from more than 16 m). Strikingly, severe head injuries predominantly occurred in falls from heights below 10 m (84%) and above 25 m (90%), whereas in the group of falls from 10 to 25 m, these lesions were seen less frequently (28%). Neck injuries like muscle bleeds and fractures of the hyoid bone were found in 33% of falls from more than 10 m and did not occur from less than 10 m. Our data stress that the evaluation of pathologic features alone is not sufficient to assess the mode of death in fatal falls from height. Instead, postmortem findings have to be considered within the framework of the subject's social, medical, and psychiatric history in conjunction with findings at the death scene and toxicology results to obtain the clearest possible picture of the circumstances of death.

From the Institute of Legal Medicine, University of Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany.

Manuscript received June 5, 2003; accepted November 18, 2003.

Reprints: Elisabeth E. Türk, MD, Institute of Legal Medicine, Universitätsklinikum Hamburg-Eppendorf, Butenfeld 34, 22529 Hamburg, Germany. E-mail:

© 2004 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.