Questions about Joan Rivers' death lead to sad legal proceedings

What you can learn about wrongful death lawsuits from her family's difficult search for answers

By Andy and Danielle Mayoras

Oct 29, 2014 @ 5:24 pm EST


Even though she was 81 years old when she died on September 4th, there is no denying that Joan Rivers died too soon. She continued to entertain with an energy level that suggested she was anything but eighty-something. Melissa Rivers has now hired a law firm to find out exactly why Joan died … and who, if anyone, should be held responsible.

Representatives for Melissa Rivers told E! News and others that she retained a New York law firm to “fully determine all of the facts and circumstances surrounding the death of Joan Rivers.” Other reports state that the law firm is sending letters to the medical center that performed the surgery that led to Joan's death, as well as the doctors' offices involved, demanding they preserve their records and phone logs. This is the first step in the long process of pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit.

Next, Melissa Rivers will have to file in probate court to open an estate for her mother. This will allow an executor to be appointed — likely Melissa — to obtain the medical records. Because of federal HIPAA laws, as well as state confidentiality laws, there is no other way for a person to be granted the legal authority necessary to obtain copies of these records.

Many people mistakenly assume that a family member or a person appointed in a durable power of attorney document can successfully order medical records when a loved one dies. They cannot. Authority granted under a power of attorney ends when the principal dies. The only option is to start a probate proceeding to appoint an executor. This is unfortunate for the Rivers family because it will make at least some of the details of Joan Rivers' estate public.

Normally, with the proper estate planning, families can avoid probate court and manage the financial and legal affairs of the person who died in private. There have been various reports that Joan had a $100 million estate, or perhaps as much as $300 million, left to Melissa and Joan's grandson, Cooper. It appears that Joan did the proper estate planning to allow Melissa and Cooper to inherit her assets without probate. But no one can verify the accuracy of these reports unless the family chooses to make them public. Now, however, with the necessity of a probate proceeding, at least some information about Joan's assets and planning will be made public.


Certainly, based on how private Melissa has been since Joan's passing, she would not take the steps of opening a probate estate without good reason. While many people have already begun to speculate that Melissa is after money, it appears far more likely that she is after something much more important: answers.

Right now, there are many more questions than answers surrounding Joan Rivers' death. The New York City Medical Examiner concluded that the cause of death was a “predictable complication” of the medical procedure. But the report only led to more questions. According to a CNN article, these include: Why didn't the clinic perform emergency intervention techniques, such as a “combat” tracheotomy, or start CPR sooner? And should this type of procedure have been done at all in a non-hospital setting given Joan Rivers' age?

If reports are true that Joan's personal throat doctor, Dr. Gwen Korovin, performed an unauthorized laryngoscopy (which involves using a device to view the patient's vocal cords) then the seriousness of the questions grow even larger. There certainly appears to be far more than “smoke” to these reports, because the American Association for Accreditation of Ambulatory Surgery Facilities paid an unannounced visit to the clinic where the surgery was performed and found deficiencies in the clinic's procedures. For her part, Dr. Korovin denied that she performed an unauthorized procedure.

No one should rush to the judgment that Dr. Korovin or the clinic did anything wrong. As the medical examiner's report shows, elderly patients die from normal complications of surgical procedures every day. In most instances, when the proper medical standards were followed, no one can be blamed for a normal complication, even when it results in tragedy.


Clearly, Melissa Rivers is taking the steps needed to find out if this was the case when it came to her mother's surgery. Once an executor is appointed and the medical records are analyzed, a lawsuit can be filed alleging medical malpractice and wrongful death. Once this lawsuit starts, Melissa's attorneys can examine the doctors, nurses and others present for the surgery, under oath in depositions, to discover what really happened.

While it is rarely an easy choice whether or not to hire an attorney and start a medical malpractice or other wrongful death lawsuit, sometimes it is necessary as the only way to find out what truly happened to cause the death of a loved one. Anyone who suggests that Melissa is only pursuing this course for money cannot appreciate the difficulties of the situation.

Wrongful death lawsuits are hard on families because they prolong the pain and make it more difficult for family members to move on with their lives. Lawsuits like this always seek money (there is nothing else they can seek), but that does not mean that Melissa or anyone else who pursues one is motivated by money.

We hope that pursing this provides not only answers to Melissa's questions, but some peace of mind as well. And if something was done wrong that contributed to Joan Rivers' death, this lawsuit may force changes so that others do not suffer the same fate.

Danielle and Andy Mayoras are co-authors of "Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!" and attorneys with "Barron Rosenberg Mayoras & Mayoras, PC".  You can reach them at [email protected].

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