Dental malpractice describes a situation in which a patient has been harmed as a result of sub-standard dental care. In the same way that doctors can be held accountable for medical negligence, dentists can be held liable for injury they cause to patients.
Dental malpractice is the rarest form of medical malpractice in the United States. The difficulty in proving dental malpractice means fewer cases make it to court, as compared to cases involving other fields of medicine. Despite dental malpractice being comparatively rare, the National Practitioner Data Bank reports that there were 1,321 dentists and hygienists involved in malpractice lawsuits in 2016.
If you think you might have grounds for a dental malpractice lawsuit, the information in this article will help you with your next steps.
Common Types of Dental Malpractice
It may surprise you to find out that dental malpractice occurs more frequently as a result of routine procedures or interactions than it does from complex or high-risk procedures. This is possibly because complex and high-risk procedures encourage more attention and diligence from the dentist carrying them out. Conversely, a dentist is far more likely to forget something or not pay attention properly when performing a procedure they have carried out thousands of times.
Some of the most common reasons that dental malpractice suits are filed include:
- Delaying treatments
- Diagnosing too late
- Failing to refer their patient to a specialist
- Performing procedures on the incorrect tooth
- Choosing an inappropriate treatment option
- Inadequately performing a procedure
How Do You Prove Dental Malpractice?
To stand a chance of launching a successful dental malpractice lawsuit, the plaintiff (the injured patient) must be able to show the following:
- That they had a dental-patient relationship with the dentist in question.
- What the appropriate standard of care is, based on the situation.
- In what way that standard of care was not met.
- How failure to meet a minimum standard of care resulted in injury to the patient.
It is extremely rare for the existence of a dentist-patient relationship to be disputed. This is easily proven with appointment documents and files held by both the dentist and the patient.
How Is Standard of Care Established?
In dental malpractice lawsuits, appropriate standard of care is established by determining what other dentists offering the same services would usually do when carrying out the same procedure. Once you have demonstrated what is considered to be an acceptable standard of dental care, you can go on to show how those standards were not met.
In almost all cases, your attorney will demonstrate standard of care by arranging a testimony from a medical witness with similar skills and experience to your dentist. For instance, if your child has been harmed as a result of a shoddy tooth extraction, your expert witness must be somebody with paediatric experience and tooth extraction experience.
How to Prove That Standard of Care Has Been Breached
The second step in a dental malpractice lawsuit is to prove that appropriate standard of care was breached. Essentially, this means proving something that
- The dental practitioner should have done but didn’t, and/or;
- The dental practitioner shouldn’t have done but did.
For example, breaches that fit the first category might include failing to dress a wound properly. Coming into work and performing a procedure while intoxicated would be an example of a breach that fits the second category.
Proving Causation in Dental Malpractice
Unfortunately, winning a dental malpractice lawsuit takes more than simply proving an acceptable standard of care was not met. You must also demonstrate direct causation between the standard of care breach and the resulting harm to the plaintiff.
This is where your expert witness comes in again. A dental professional of equal skill and experience must be able to testify that the breach directly caused the injury you experienced. Ideally, this would also involve giving examples of occasions when the same breach led to the same harmful result.
Here are a couple of examples that would likely hold up:
- The patient fell down the stairs because the dentist administered too much sedative and failed to keep them for observation following the procedure.
- The patient lost a perfectly healthy tooth because the dentist failed to check medical notes properly and extracted the wrong one.
Dealing with Dental Malpractice
Patients should keep in mind that being personally dissatisfied with work their dentist has carried out does not mean they have grounds for a malpractice claim. Unless of course, you can prove that the dentist did not provide an acceptable standard of care.
If you still believe you may have been the victim of malpractice and are entitled to financial compensation, your next move should be speaking to an attorney. As dental malpractice cases are notoriously difficult to prove, you would be best served finding a law firm that specializes in this area of medical malpractice.
How to Avoid Dental Malpractice
Nobody wants to be the victim of dental malpractice, even if it turns out that they are later entitled to compensation. You can avoid the physical harm and stress associated with dental malpractice by choosing your dental care professional very carefully.
Asking for recommendations from family and friends is a good place to start. And of course, you should check out your potential dentist’s credentials, experience, specialities, and reviews.