Pierce County’s former medical examiner has been cleared of allegations he violated professional standards regarding a duty to communicate with the members of a deceased person’s family.
The Washington Medical Commission released a determination on Thursday dismissing claims that Dr. Thomas Clark violated state law on professional conduct and a state law that requires coroners and medical examiners to meet with family members of deceased people to discuss findings of an autopsy or postmortem examination.
“I feel very good about the vindication provided by the Medical Commission, but it does not take away the damage to my reputation and the psychological injuries I have suffered as a result of both the complaints and the Commission’s investigation tactics,” Clark told The News Tribune on Friday.
The case included three families who filed complaints with the commission. The investigation was brought for review in 2020.
Investigators talked with three families who complained about Clark’s findings regarding cause and manner of death for a deceased family member, the hearing’s final order said. The deaths occurred from 2017-2019.
“These family members all complained that they made numerous telephone calls to (Clark) and that he failed to return or answer these telephone calls,” lawyers representing the state told the commission, according to documents submitted as part of the case.
The commission determined that the Department of Health Medical Program did not prove by clear and convincing evidence that Clark committed unprofessional conduct, according to the hearing’s final order. The Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office defended Clark during the hearing due to his status as a county employee.
The commission also disagreed with the department’s claim that Clark failed to answer telephone calls from family members, concluding that the medical examiner is not required to return every phone call and that Clark’s alleged failure to provide the answers sought by the family members did not rise to the level of unprofessional conduct.
“The Department failed to prove (Clark) acted in any manner that violated the standards of good morals, honesty or justice. Neither did the Department prove (Clark’s) performance of his Pierce County Medical Examiner duties raised any reasonable concern that he abused the status of his profession to harm the family members of the decedents,” the order said.
Documents filed as part of the commission’s proceedings show Clark argued there were protocols in place at the Medical Examiner’s Office to communicate with families and that he instituted a system to ensure calls from relatives were tracked and answered by medical examiner investigators in a timely fashion.
The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office conducts autopsies and reviews homicides, suspicious and undetermined deaths. Clark led the county’s Medical Examiner’s Office for nearly a decade as both the forensic pathologist and the head of the office.
Clark’s management of the office and death investigations was criticized toward the end of his tenure, spawning a number of inquiries, one of which found in 2016 he could be overly brusque and intimidating to employees. He kept his job, announced his retirement in 2019 and remained as a on-call employee with the county until the end of 2020.
Dr. Karen Cline-Parhamovich was hired February 2020 and now heads the department.