Plaintiffs who are considering a malpractice lawsuit most commonly think of pursuing a suit against a doctor. Doctors, however, are not the only medical professionals who can cause patient injury through malpractice. Dentists and orthodontists can be sued as well when the services they provide to a patient fall below the standard of care required. Just like doctors, dentists are licensed medical professionals who can make errors that lead to patient injuries. A dentist may fail to diagnose a patient accurately, fail to administer anesthesia properly in a surgical situation or fail to get informed consent for a procedure. Dentists may also be found liable if they make an error while extracting teeth, or error in their treatment of an infection. There can even be circumstances that arise when a dentist is liable for the actions of their hygienists or other assistants if they were not under the proper supervision of the dentist. When the negligent actions of a dentist injure a plaintiff, it is vital that they understand the critical elements of a dental malpractice lawsuit.
In the same fashion as a malpractice suit against a doctor, the burden of proof will be on the plaintiff. The injured party and their attorney will need to establish four key elements to move forward with their suit. First, there needs to be a clear existence of a dentist-patient relationship. Second, the plaintiff will need to establish what the appropriate medical standard of care should have been under the circumstances that caused them to be injured. Once the standard of care is established, the plaintiff will need to show how that standard of care was breached, and directly lead to the injuries sustained. The final element a plaintiff will need to show is to what extent they suffered injuries because of the malpractice of the dentist.
The plaintiff does not typically have a difficult time establishing the first element of whether a dentist-patient relationship existed. The dentist-patient relationship exists when a plaintiff seeks care and treatment is offered from the dentist.
The second element is establishing what the medical standard of care would be in a similar situation. Plaintiffs almost always verify what the medical standard of care is through the use of a qualified expert medical witness. The expert is typically another medical professional who has experience with the same procedure that is at question.
A credible expert witness can aid in establishing what a typical standard of care is. Upon setting that standard of care, the plaintiff must prove that a dentist breached that standard, and that was the causation of the plaintiff’s injuries. However, plaintiffs who have sustained injuries or suffer from an unsuccessful result from a dental procedure do not have an automatic guarantee that there was a breach of duty. There are some cases where a dentist clearly breaches the standard of care. For instance, a dentist who extracts the wrong tooth or causes nerve damage with an improper injection has clearly fallen below the standard of care that is expected. In circumstances where it is not as clear that the dentist fell below the standard of care, the plaintiff will most likely again turn to expert testimony. For example, a party who was injured during oral surgery will call an experienced oral surgeon to help demonstrate exactly how the defendant’s conduct fell short of meeting the standard of care that is expected.
Proceeding forward, a plaintiff will have to prove causation. It is possible that a dentist could breach their duty to comply with the standard of care and not cause any harm to the plaintiff in the process. There must be a causal relationship between the dentist’s breach of the standard of care and the injury that the plaintiff sustained. Similarly to the other steps in the trial, a plaintiff will have the best chance of proving causation by calling on expert medical testimony. In this portion of the trial, the expert can show what steps should have been taken during treatment compared to the procedure that was taken by the defendant. When the contrasting steps are compared, it can show how the actions taken by the defendant were negligent, leading to the injuries sustained by the plaintiff.
The final component that a plaintiff must prove in a dental malpractice case is that damages occurred. Damages in a dental malpractice case can include physical damage such as chipped teeth, or nerve damage. A plaintiff could have also suffered financial damage as a result of their injuries. Financial loss would include any costs associated with correcting the mistakes made by the dentist in question. Additionally, a plaintiff may be able to recover noneconomic damages. Noneconomic damages could include embarrassment or mental anguish because the negligent actions of a dentist ruined the plaintiff’s teeth. The damage will be able to be collected on as long as it can be proved that the dentist’s breach of duty was the direct cause of the injuries.
Dentists who do not believe they are liable in malpractice cases will most likely put forth a defense of their actions. A strong defense that a dentist can assert begins with dental records. The defendant will try to show a precise chronology of events, future treatment plans, and all communication between the dentist and plaintiff. Proper medical documentation will have any consent forms signed by the injured party, and notes taken at the time of the treatment. Notes and records can show any pre-existing conditions the plaintiff may have had before the dentist-patient relationship began. For instance, if a patient already had broken teeth before the relationship started the dentist in question would not be held liable for that damage. The defendant will show this documentation in an attempt to prove that they provided the proper standard of care that is expected in the profession. However, any inconsistencies or unclear documentation will be problematic for the defending dentist.
Establishing a duty of care, showing a breach of that care occurred, and directly caused the injuries sustained are the essential elements in a dental malpractice case. Additionally, having a credible expert witness will help the plaintiff establish the malpractice of the defendant. Provided all of those elements can be proven a plaintiff will likely be able to recover damages.
If you or a loved one was injured by a dentist please call us. You will speak directly with a medical malpractice lawyer who can best answer your questions. There is no fee for the initial consultation.