Typical medical malpractice lawsuits can arise between a patient and their doctor due to various instances, such as a mistake in surgery or a misdiagnosis that can be life-altering — or even life-threatening. Conversely, many times a mistake in dental care can be easily corrected and doesn’t escalate to a lawsuit. Though sometimes, an error in dental care can cause serious injuries that warrant legal action.
To sue a dentist in a dental negligence lawsuit, you have to prove that you were injured as a result of the dentist’s substandard care. Dentists go through years of training to be able to offer their services, and in doing so, they accept the obligation to provide a professional standard of care to their patients. When a dentist strays from this professional standard of care, they can expect to be held accountable when they cause injuries.
How Do I Prove Dental Malpractice in a Lawsuit?
Medical negligence is a personal injury tort. A tort is a wrongful act or omission that leads to civil legal liability. There are four elements under the law that need to be proven to win a dental negligence lawsuit which are:
- The dentist owed the patient a duty of care
- The dentist breached the duty to provide the professional standard of care owed to the patient
- The dentist’s action caused their patient’s injury
- The patient suffered an injury that resulted in damages
Let’s examine these four elements in detail.
The first element you must prove as an injured patient is that the dentist owed you a duty to provide care. That’s generally easy to establish since the moment the dentist accepts you as a customer, that act is essentially an agreement that they accept their responsibilities towards you, their patient. Furthermore, there is a paper trail established through bookings, check-ins, an exchange of insurance information, and billing when receiving care. As a dental professional, there are accepted norms that hold true across the profession. Dentists are expected to provide a level of care that falls within those norms.
Breach of Duty
Once a dentist-patient relationship is established, the second element is that the dentist breached their duty of care towards you by failing to provide adequate care that rises to the level of their profession. Each state has its own laws concerning how these levels are measured in a court of law. Expert testimony will often be required to determine if the dentist failed to meet the standards expected.
In the third element, the patient must establish a causal link between the dentist’s acts or omissions that resulted in their injury. In a dental negligence lawsuit, causation requires “cause in fact,” which means that the patient’s injury would not have happened “but for” the dentist’s negligence. Furthermore, “proximate cause” must be established, which is that the injury was a foreseeable repercussion of their negligence.
The final element in a dental negligence lawsuit is proving the damages which means your injuries resulted in financial or physical harm. In this type of lawsuit, there are three types of damage awards that may be possible.
Compensatory Damages - Compensatory damages are assigned for a financial loss like medical bills, lost wages, future medical costs, and any other out-of-pocket costs related to the injury.
Non-economic Damages - Non-economic damages are for pain and suffering, mental or emotional anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, and even inconvenience.
Punitive Damages - Punitive damages are rarely awarded in a dental negligence lawsuit because punitive damages are a way for juries to punish wrongdoers and set an example for others. In most cases, the dentist intended to help, not cause harm, so it wouldn’t make sense to punish in this way. Typically, you would only see punitive damages if the dentists did something that harms society in general, such as acting sexually inappropriate towards a patient.
What Kind of Records or Documentation Should I Show for a Dental Negligence Lawsuit?
Evidence is crucial in any kind of civil lawsuit. Make sure to keep records of any communication between you and the dentist’s office, including a follow-up communication after the injury. Keep receipts for any medication or medical treatments. In some states, you may need to get an affidavit from a health care practitioner that indicates your case has merit before having the ability to file the lawsuit. In some instances, depending on state law, it can be helpful to show a ruling in your favor from the state board of dentistry before filing a claim. Our dental negligence lawyers will be able to help you define what documentation will be most helpful, depending on which state you live in.
What Could Be Considered Dental Malpractice?
- Lack of informed consent
- Wrongfully administered anesthesia
- Failure to diagnose (for cancer or TMJ)
- Failure to refer to a specialist
- Improper tooth extraction
- Failure to treat (infections)
- Failure to oversee employee actions (hygienists)
- Injuries to oral nerves
- Root canal injuries
- Complications from Novocaine
- Unnecessary treatment
- Wrongful death
Dental malpractice should not be taken lightly. You probably would be unsuccessful in a claim if you simply didn’t like the results. However, some injuries can impact your ability to enjoy life as you used to. For example, some instances of dental negligence can result in permanent or temporary injuries to the nerves in the face causing numbness or loss of the ability to taste.
Wrongful death can occur if anesthesia is improperly administered during extraction or other oral surgeries. Furthermore, a failure to diagnose oral cancer or other diseases of the mouth can end up in the death of a patient. Life-threatening infections can stem from faulty root canals or dental implants. Even the wire used for tightening braces can cause infection if the wire is not correctly applied and left to poke the soft tissue of the mouth. Seemingly benign procedures could have devastating consequences if the dentist fails to provide the standard of care expected.
What Are the Top 5 Main Causes of Lawsuits in Dentistry?
- Complications following extractions - Infections, severed nerves, and sinus perforation are the most common causes of lawsuits in dentistry. Suppose the complication requires the patient to be admitted to the hospital and the dentist failed to provide adequate medications like antibiotics. In that case, the dentists could be held liable for medical bills at a minimum. Furthermore, severed nerves and sinus perforation should have been diagnosed at the time of occurrence, and medical treatment should have been provided. But for this omission, the patient may not have suffered irreparable damage.
- Endodontic procedures - A device left in a canal, air embolisms, nerve and sinus damage, and life-threatening infections can occur during endodontic procedures. A perforated sinus is usually caused when the dentist is careless and can lead to sinus pain and pressure that doesn’t go away.
- Crown and bridge treatment - Unnecessary recommendations for crowns and bridges can result in the removal and replacement of healthy teeth. Suppose another dentist says there is no need for such procedures. In that case, this could be dental negligence on behalf of the dentist that initially diagnosed the issue.
- Failure to diagnose periodontal disease - If left untreated, periodontal disease can cause teeth to loosen and fall out and can contribute to life-threatening cardiovascular issues such as heart attack and stroke.
- Adverse drug reactions - It is the duty of a dentist to consider a patient’s medical history, weight, and age before prescribing medications. If the prescribed medication was just the dentist’s “go-to” drug of choice for the procedure and they didn’t check the patient’s medical history for possible complications, that is negligence.
What Are Dental Malpractice Statistics?
While dental negligence lawsuits are far less common than medical malpractice lawsuits, they still accounted for about 5% of tort cases in a 2005 report released by the U.S. Bureau of Justice. The numbers do not include cases that were dropped, dismissed, or settled out of court, which suggests the number could be somewhat higher. Furthermore, the cases had a median price tag award of about $53,000, not including legal fees.
What Are Real-Life Dental Malpractice Examples?
- A woman in her mid-50’s sought routine cleaning from a dental clinic and used them for several other treatments over the course of one year. On the last visit, the patent was referred to a periodontist for treatment of an abscessed tooth. When the periodontists treated the patient, the oral surgeon noticed the presence of granulation tissue and removed some for a biopsy which confirmed oral squamous cell carcinoma. The patient required multiple surgeries, hospitalizations, and outpatient care but ultimately succumbed to cancer. The decedent’s family sued and ultimately lost because their lawyers were not able to prove each required element of dental negligence.
- A woman in her 60’s alleged injury to a nerve while having a molar removed. During an operation that should have taken one hour, the dentist worked for four hours. When the dentist finished, root fragments remained. The dentist had drilled through to the bone underneath the molar resulting in injury to the nerve and destruction of the bone in her lower jaw. She complained that she still suffers from permanent pain, numbness, and tingling. The jury agreed with her that the dentist failed to provide her with adequate care awarding her $1 million.
- A man in his early forties with a medical history that included hepatitis and liver disease went for a root canal, which lasted three hours. During that time, the patient was given midazolam, diazepam, and morphine. He was taken home and continued to sleep. After some time, his wife became alarmed because his breath was shallow, he was hard to wake, and he was snoring. The wife contacted the dentist and was advised that additional morphine administered towards the end of the operation was the reason for his drowsiness. One hour later, the patient was found not breathing. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was later pronounced dead. Test results revealed he died due to aspiration pneumonia from the combined effects of the drugs. The case settled for over $1 million.
Can I File a Dental Negligence Lawsuit?
Dental lawsuits require highly technical evidence to be successful. While our lawyers at Morgan & Morgan don’t have degrees in dentistry, they do have extensive experience with medical malpractice and the law.
Our lawyers review the facts and evidence to come up with the strongest argument possible. The resources available to our attorneys are immense as Morgan & Morgan is one of the largest personal injury law firms in the U.S. Resources in a dental negligence lawsuit are crucial because access to experts who can testify on your behalf is not cheap. Furthermore, we have access to financial professionals that can determine just how much compensation is needed to deal with your past, present, and future expenses that relate to your injury.
And finally, you can lean on the reputation of Morgan & Morgan lawyers for a favorable settlement. With 30-years of experience and billions recovered for our clients, big insurance companies are very familiar with us and understand we don’t back down until our clients are justly compensated.
If you feel you’ve suffered from dental negligence, contact us day or night for a free, no-risk case evaluation.