Can I Sue a Child-Focused Dentist?
By Robert Rafii, Esq. | Legally reviewed by Steven J. Ellison, Esq. | Last reviewed April 12, 2023
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Pediatric dentists are an important part of youth health care, but sometimes their behavior can amount to child abuse. A shoddy treatment plan can mean your younger family members aren't exactly improving their dental health, especially if the dental clinic is responsible for:
- inflicting unnecessary physical injury on a child; or
- emotionally abusing a child
Going to the dental office is not a treat for any kid, but taking care of their oral health shouldn't hurt them.
For example, just because permanent teeth haven't grown in yet, pediatric dentistry doesn't give free rein to an orthodontist to just remove perfectly good teeth or to perform other procedures unless they are medically necessary.
When a dental professional or one of their staff members at a child-focused dentistry office provides your son or daughter with treatment that falls short of the standard of care in your state, a medical malpractice attorney may be able to help you evaluate your case.
Suing for Dental Malpractice
Whether it's the general dentist (DDS), the dental hygienist, or an orthodontics expert at a private practice, anyone at a child-focused dental group can potentially commit dental malpractice or medical malpractice against youth.
Dental malpractice claims usually arise from improper dental procedures or the failure to use medically-accepted treatments in a child-focused dentist's community. Here are a few examples:
- Poor dental work that results in personal injury to your child
- A wrongful or unnecessary tooth extraction (even if they're not permanent teeth)
- Failure to use new technologies that are accepted as the normal and necessary form of treatment in a child-focused dentist's medical community. For example, if there are pain-free alternatives, a child-focused dentist should know better than to put a five-year-old through a traditional root canal.
If your child has suffered under similar circumstances, you should immediately be on alert that the dentist may have been negligent. You might be familiar with general negligence law from reading about it on Findlaw's resource pages, such as in our article on Elements of a Negligence Case.
Proving medical negligence is a similar process, but takes into account the special position that a medical professional has in contrast to the average person in society. To sue a child-focused dentist for medical negligence, you have to show:
- Your child's dentist owes them a duty as part of the doctor-patient relationship to ensure that they are properly treated. The dentist must act reasonably to keep your child safe while receiving treatment in the same way that a medical professional in their community would be expected to provide services for children.
- Your child's dentist has breached their duty while providing your child with dental care. There may be a breach of duty if the dentist's dental work doesn't rise to the standard of professional conduct that is expected of a reasonable child-focused dentist in the community.
- Your child has been injured as a result of (or due to the “causation" of) the dentist's breach of duty. If your child's tooth problem has worsened under the dentist's care when it should have otherwise been successfully treated, it may be that their injuries were caused by the dentist's breach.
- Your child has suffered damages. This usually means they incurred pain, suffering, and more medical bills just to fix the worsening problems caused to their teeth by the dentist's breach of their professional duty.
It might be helpful to put these legal elements into a hypothetical example so that you may better understand how a medical malpractice case works:
Suppose your child has a toothache. The dentist says their X-rays look normal and doesn't bother doing a physical inspection. In most communities where child-focused dentists provide medical services, it is reasonably expected that a dentist would conduct a manual inspection of your child's teeth. This dentist, however, just sends your child home.
The next day, your child's toothache gets worse and it turns out they have a terrible infection that the doctor could have caught if they had just bothered to physically inspect the inside of your child's mouth. Any competent child-focused dentist would have immediately noticed something was wrong and would have prescribed antibiotics to quickly treat the worsening infection.
Because your child's dentist failed to follow the standard of care required in the community, you now have an extra $5,000 emergency bill that you had to pay to treat a worsening tooth infection that could have gone away with cheap antibiotics. Here, you'd have a great case for medical malpractice against your child-focused dentist.
Suing for Wrongful Death
In some cases, a claim for medical negligence may not be available because the child-focused dentist's conduct may have been so bad that the patient passed away under their care. If your family member passed away due to their dentist's medical malpractice, then their representative could sue for wrongful death.
State laws can vary depending on where you live, but in most cases, to sue a child-focused dentist for wrongful death, your case has to meet the following legal elements:
- The child passed away.
- The child's death was caused by the dentist's negligence or medical malpractice.
- You can establish damages that your state allows you to recover, such as loss of money, love, and companionship as a result of the child's death.
Let's go back to our example. It turns out that even though the emergency room doctors did the best they could, the child's infection had progressed so terribly that it resulted in a brain infection that killed them. This is a nightmare for any parent, and the law recognizes that the provider is responsible.
Remedies and Limits on Recovery
Medical Malpractice: Ordinarily, a child who survives their dentist's medical malpractice and prevails against the doctor in court will be able to recover for their:
- Non-economic damages such as pain, suffering, physical impairments, and loss of enjoyment of life
- Economic damages such as medical bills and loss of income
Wrongful Death: The deceased child's parent or guardian may recover for:
- Non-economic damages such as the lost value of love, affection, and companionship
- Economic damages such as financial (income) losses, funeral expenses, and medical treatment costs resulting from the wrongful death
Limits on recovery vary depending on the state in which the affected victim or their family may live. Some states have laws that limit ("cap") non-economic damages to several hundred thousand dollars. Some states also allow for the recovery of punitive damages if you can show that a doctor acted intentionally, willfully, or with reckless disregard for the patient's life.
Suing for Child Abuse
Children are the most vulnerable members of society, and some medical professionals who are severely sick in the head take advantage of this fact in the most twisted of ways.
Findlaw's child abuse page provides helpful information about preventing and reporting child abuse.
It is disturbing to hear what a child-focused dentist might do while a patient is under sedation, but here are some examples from our sexual assault resources page which provides guidance for how to pursue your legal rights in situations involving:
- Fondling, kissing, or making unwanted bodily contact;
- Forcing a tongue, mouth, finger, penis, or an object onto another person's anus or genitals.
If you suspect that your child has been a victim of sexual abuse by a child-focused dentist, report the matter to law enforcement immediately.
A Dental Malpractice Lawyer Can Help
Not all personal injury lawyers are qualified to handle malpractice suits. Instead, you should establish a client relationship with a dental malpractice attorney who is experienced in fighting insurance companies and suing child-focused dentists in medical malpractice cases. A medical malpractice attorney can give you legal advice regarding the unique circumstances of your child's case.
A malpractice lawyer can also help you file your claim before the expiration of the statute of limitations which applies to your case. This is a legal time limit that varies depending on the state you live in, so make sure you consult with a legal professional as soon as possible to avoid delays that may hurt your child's case.
Contact a qualified attorney to help you navigate the challenges presented by litigation.