Dentistry is widely considered one of the 10 most trusted, most ethical professions in the United States, but that doesn’t mean dental medical malpractice doesn’t happen. You probably associate needing a medical malpractice lawyer with doctors rather than dentists, but the reality is that dental clinics can be sued just like doctors for avoidable medical complications in some cases.
Situations where dentists or orthodontists may be held responsible for complications including failure to correctly diagnose problems, administer anesthesia, or provide a referral to another surgeon or specialist when warranted. Even conducting a procedure without the patient’s informed consent can lead to legal trouble.
Dental medical malpractice may seem rare, but it’s no less significant than any other injury when you’re on the receiving end. From common problems to personal injury lawyers, for everything you need to know about dental medical malpractice, keep reading.
Knowing What Constitutes Dental Medical Malpractice
Proving that your dentist is actually responsible for dental medical malpractice is not as simple as you might think. Medical malpractice is a legal term, and its precise definition has to be understood and recognized by the prosecutor if their case is to hold up in court. To start with, you cannot sue a dentist simply because you didn’t like the results of the agreed-upon procedure, because dental work cannot be guaranteed.
Instead, dentists can be sued when they have failed to uphold an acceptable standard of care, or when they’ve given treatment that went beyond what their patient consented to. In some court cases, the dentist intentionally harmed their patient; at other times the harm was unintentional, but caused by the dentist’s negligence.
Whether you’re looking at oral surgery or cosmetic dentistry services, dental medical malpractice is a serious thing. Victims can experience temporary or even permanent damage to the nerves in their lips, tongue, chin, and jaw as a result. Temporary or permanent numbness or a loss of taste sensation can also result from dental malpractice. These sorts of complications don’t just result from negligence during complex procedures, either — something as simple as having a tooth removed can be deadly if the dentist uses the wrong amount of anesthesia. Deaths can also result from a failure to correctly diagnose and treat serious conditions like oral cancer.
With so much at stake, it’s easy to see why it’s so important to only use dental services you can trust. Professional certifications and memberships, reviews from past and current patients, and legal records are all important things to look into any time you’re considering a new medical professional.
Proving Dental Medical Malpractice
Dentists may not often be jailed or need bail bond companies as a result of dental negligence, but they can still suffer lawsuits when they fail to care for their patients properly. However, proving that your dentist is guilty of malpractice isn’t always easy to do, even if you‘ve sustained a serious injury from the experience. A dental medical malpractice claim is held up by four key elements: the dentist’s duty of care, the appropriate standard of care reasonably expected from the dentist, the dentist’s breach of care in this instance, and proof of causation. We’ll discuss each of these in detail next, so that you’ll be well prepared to discuss them with your personal injury attorney.
Duty of care refers to your dentist’s responsibility to provide you adequate care as your personal medical specialist. This assumes you have an official dentist-patient relationship with the dentist, which can be proven with your receipts and medical records that prove you’ve been a patient of this dentist. Since you (or your insurance) paid the dentist, and the dentist provided (or attempted to provide) treatments in return, you have a legal dentist-patient relationship.
Appropriate standard of care is basically a quality standard that applies to medical practitioners. As the prosecutor, it will be up to you and your lawyer to define what the reasonable standard of care is for dentists providing the type of treatment you were supposed to receive. A definition of the standard of care should describe the actions and precautions that a competent dentist would have taken when treating your condition. It basically describes the rules that your dentist broke in treating you. Unless the malpractice was truly severe, so much so that anyone could see it, you will need an expert witness with significant qualifications in dentistry to prove that the standard of care your case describes is accurate.
In medical malpractice, the breach is the action (or failure to act) that fell short of the appropriate standard of care. It’s the accusation you’re bringing against your dentist, and the reason you’re in court.
Finally, causation means that you would not have been injured had the dentist not breached the standard of care. The dentist you’re suing will probably argue that your injuries were a result of a preexisting condition or a natural complication from the procedure. Proving causation demonstrates to the court that the defendant dentist’s arguments are false, and that you would have avoided your injuries had your dentist practiced appropriately.
Another element in every malpractice claim is damages, which basically describes exactly what you lost as a victim of medical malpractice. Damages will vary widely depending on the scope of harm you’ve endured. If you’ve incurred costly medical bills as you treat the results of dental malpractice, you’ll be able to demand compensation for these losses. Other types of harm are more subjective, such as non-economic damages like pain and suffering. These can also form a part of your compensation, at least as long as you can prove to the court that they were significant.
As you can probably see, it’s important to evaluate the scope of your personal damages with the help of your lawyer, before you bring up the claim in court. You want to be sure they’re worth incurring the costs of litigation before pursuing compensation for them.
Proceeding Through a Malpractice Claim
Medical malpractice claims are usually more complex than the majority of personal injury cases, and dental malpractice claims are no exception. This is largely because most states demand that plaintiffs be met, which outlines certain procedural requirements for moving a malpractice claim forward. These often include an affidavit of merit. In certain states, it may be necessary for you to pursue a claim through your state board of dentistry’s administrative process, before you’re allowed to file a case in court.
After the plaintiff in a malpractice case has filed a complaint, the defendant will respond with an answer, and then the discovery process will begin. The discovery process is key to a successful case, because involves releasing the patient’s entire dental records, records of communication between the patient and dentist, details regarding the follow-up treatment the patient needed as a result of the malpractice, and all specific costs involved in the patient’s recovery. If the patient will need further treatments in the future, these will be outlined as well. It’s important that all documents you use are as accurate as possible, as the court can detect fraud and your case could suffer as a result.
During the discovery phase, witnesses for both the prosecutor and defendant will be deposed as they prepare for trial. Both experts and non-experts may be witnesses for either party.
The discovery period allows each side to gauge the strength of their respective position. If the plaintiff has a valid claim against their dentist, this process will help ensure that a proper settlement is obtained.
If you go through the discovery process and your dentist offers to settle outside of court, you will need to decide whether or not the settlement is fair. Of course, if your attorney feels that your case is not likely to succeed in court, you will probably want to accept the offered settlement. But if the settlement isn’t acceptable to you or your lawyer believes you have a strong case, your next step can be taking your case to trial.
Responding When You Think You’ve Been a Malpractice Victim
It’s incredibly important for people to stay on top of their routine dental checkups and teeth cleanings. The health of your teeth and mouth is deeply interconnected with the health of your whole body, so much so that dentists can sometimes recognize symptoms of certain cancers even before your regular doctor might. As such, maintaining good oral health is incredibly important, not only for maintaining strong teeth into old age, but for staying in good health in general.
Because of this, it can be incredibly damaging when dentists fail to treat their patients responsibly and properly. Anxiety stemming from visits to the dentist office is already real, with some people experiencing all sorts of worries and fears just from the thought of going to the dentist. Of course, those fears are usually unfounded, but when you consider the real possibility of dental medical malpractice, they become even more worrisome.
Even when things do go wrong at the dentist’s office, patients are often left wondering if the complications they experienced are the result of normal side effects, or if they’ve truly been a victim of dental malpractice. By now you know what’s involved in establishing proof of a malpractice case. But sometimes the evidence of negligence and harm is unclear in the first place.
As we’ve discussed, the first element in proving a malpractice case is that the dentist owed a duty of care — they were responsible to properly care for their patient. The second element is that the dentist was either medically negligent or breached their duty of care. This means that the standard of care the dentist provided was not reasonable compared to similar services provided by other dentists.
The following are all examples of medical negligence:
- Failure to take the patient’s complete medical history
- Severing nerves or other structures
- Failure to diagnose a disease, such as periodontal disease or oral cancer
- Leaving broken medical instruments inside a root canal
- Fracturing the jaw
- Extracting the wrong teeth
- Spilling chemicals on the patient
- Not providing enough anesthesia, or administering too much
- Causing life-threatening infection
- Causing excessive bleeding
If the complications you’re experiencing are any one of these conditions, you aren’t simply suffering from side effects: you’re a victim of dental malpractice.
However, it’s important to note once again that, in order to have a successful case, you must also be able to show that your dentist’s negligence directly caused the harm you’re suffering from. For example, if your dentist removed a tooth and then gave you special instructions for care, but you failed to follow the instructions resulting in complications, your dentist can’t be held responsible.
But in cases where permanent nerve injury was sustained because your dentist accidentally cut a nerve, or where your dentist misread test results for oral cancer and the disease progressed, then your dentist may be responsible for negligence.
There’s one more element to consider before you choose to file a dental medical malpractice claim: serious harm. Even if you can demonstrate that your dentist acted carelessly and caused you harm, unless you experienced significant financial setback or harm to your wellbeing, it might not be worth pursuing a case. If you managed to recover with minimal expense, chances are the time and legal fees involved in a court case would far outweigh any settlement you could get. In these cases, your best option is quite simply to choose a better dentist, and warn your friends against visiting the one who caused you harm. In order for a claim to hold up in court and be worth pursuing, there must have been significant physical, financial, or emotional loss on the part of the patient.
Knowing When to File a Claim
If you’ve evaluated your case on your own, compared it to the above information, and decided that you do indeed have a case worth pursuing, your next step is to talk it over with your lawyer. A good attorney will verify whether or not you have a case, and make recommendations to pursue based on the details. Things like the statute of limitations and other state and local regulations can all have an impact on the course you take. If your lawyer agrees that you have a case, they will help guide you through the steps listed in this article.
And with that, you should know everything you need to know about dental medical malpractice. From recognizing signs of negligence to talking with medical malpractice attorneys, you’re now equipped for whatever dental malpractice problems may come your way.