Can I Sue My Dentist?
You can sue a dentist for dental malpractice, which is a form of medical malpractice claim. You may have a dental malpractice case when a dental professional, such as a dentist or any medical professional at a dentistry office provides you with medical treatment that falls below the acceptable standard of care in your state.
Dental malpractice claims can involve all sorts of dental procedures. Here are a few examples of a dentist's negligence that would give rise to a dental malpractice lawsuit:
- Shoddy dental work that results in personal injury
- An improper root canal that causes nerve damage
- A wrongful tooth extraction by an oral surgeon
- A dental implant placed over the wrong tooth
- Unsanitary tools used by a hygienist that result in tooth infection
- An oral cancer misdiagnosis that results in pain and trauma
If you or a loved one have suffered under similar circumstances, consider getting a case evaluation from a medical malpractice attorney.
How Can I Sue My Dentist?
It's not enough that you were injured as a result of the dentist's conduct. After all, many medical operations are risky, and even the most routine kind of dental work may be expected to cause some pain or bleeding. For example, it's not necessarily unusual that a deep cleaning of your teeth might cause your gums to bleed, or that it might be painful to bear the pressure of surgical tools wriggling inside your mouth the entire time.
Imagine a world where every medical professional would be on the hook for the most minor of inconveniences that their work causes for their patients. No one would go through the trouble of becoming a dentist in the first place, or worse, no qualified dentist would take the risk of performing treatment on patients that would require more serious operations.
It would become too burdensome for doctors and the courts to deal with lawsuits for every single injury, pain, or discomfort that a patient felt, even though it's no secret that getting tooth work done is inherently not a pleasant experience for most people. So if you want to sue your dentist, be prepared to prove dental negligence.
Elements of Medical (Dental) Negligence
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. In other words, there's a clear difference between what might count as negligence by a layperson versus how a dentist might be found to be negligent in the course of providing complicated medical care.
To sue for medical negligence, you have to show:
- Your dentist owes you a duty. If you have a doctor-patient relationship with a dentist, they would owe you a professional duty of care to ensure you are properly treated. The way this duty is defined varies between states, but in general, the dentist must act reasonably to keep you safe in the same way that a medical professional in their community would be expected to behave.
- Your dentist has breached their duty while providing you with dental care. There may be a breach of duty if the dentist's (poor) dental work doesn't rise to the level of professional conduct that is expected of a reasonable dentist in the community.
- You have been injured as a result of (or due to the “causation" of) your dentist's breach of duty. If your tooth problem has worsened under the dentist's care when it should have otherwise been successfully treated, it may be that your injuries were caused by the dentist's breach.
- You have suffered resulting damages. This usually means you incurred pain, suffering, and more medical bills just to fix the worsening problems caused to your teeth by your dentist's breach of their professional duty to you.
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.
A Visit to the Dentist Gone Wrong: Medical Malpractice Case Example
Suppose a person—let's call them Alex—is suffering from a toothache. They bring their dental records to Doctor Den, their local dentist, who does some x-rays to further investigate the cause of the problem.
Doctor Den tells Alex that Alex's x-rays look normal. Unbeknownst to both Doctor Den and Alex, however, it turns out Doctor Den was looking at another patient's x-rays because the dentist's office is abnormally and unusually messy.
Doctor Den then asks Alex to sit in a dentist's chair for a closer examination. Unfortunately, Doctor Den has been suffering from alcohol abuse, and due to ongoing drunkenness, the dentist is so absent-minded that day that Doctor Den forgets to put on prescription glasses before doing a physical examination of Alex's teeth. As a result, Doctor Den doesn't notice anything wrong during the exam.
Doctor Den tells Alex to go home and rest, and that the pain will go away by itself. Alex trustingly obeys the dentist's orders. The next day, Alex is in even worse pain. Alex calls Doctor Den in the morning to complain. Doctor Den, who is on the 6th glass of wine for the morning, laughs it off, tells Alex to relax and stop worrying, and to get more rest.
Alex, who doesn't know any better, again listens to the dentist and goes back to bed. Later that day, the pain gets so bad that Alex has to call 911. At the emergency room, the doctors discover a worsening tooth infection that has caused Alex's teeth and gums to decay quickly.
The doctors inform Alex that the tooth decay is very obvious in the x-rays and that any competent dentist would have immediately noticed something is wrong and would have prescribed antibiotics to quickly treat the worsening infection. Alex gets sent home with a $10,000 emergency bill.
Putting It All Together
Here, Alex will want to sue Doctor Den for medical malpractice due to the dental negligence committed by the dentist:
- Because Doctor Den is Alex's dentist, the doctor-patient relationship between them requires that Doctor Den would dutifully provide safe and effective dental care to Alex.
- Doctor Den has repeatedly breached a professional duty to Alex because a reasonable dentist in the same community would have maintained an organized office so that x-rays wouldn't be mixed up or misread. A reasonable dentist would also avoid coming into work drunk and would remember to use their prescription glasses before doing a physical inspection of a patient's teeth. Even worse, a reasonable dentist would not have brushed off their patient's second call for help when the pain only got worse the day after the examination.
- If Doctor Den had been more careful to properly arrange and label x-rays, and if Doctor Den had been more careful to limit drinking and to remember to wear prescription glasses during dental inspections, perhaps Alex wouldn't have ended up at the emergency room. Doctor Den's negligent behavior, alongside Doctor's Den's dismissal of Alex's second phone call, caused Alex to end up in the emergency room with a worsening tooth infection. Had Doctor Den acted reasonably, perhaps Alex could have been given a timely antibiotics prescription.
- Because of Doctor's Den's negligence, Alex ended up in the emergency room with worsening pain and inflated medical bills. Alex's pain and suffering, alongside $10,000 in emergency room bills, are resulting damages that Alex can prove in court.
In court, Alex may use expert witnesses to testify that a reasonable doctor would have made different choices in the form of treatment that was provided to Alex.
A Visit So Bad, the Patient Died: Wrongful Death
In some cases, a claim for medical negligence may not be available because the dentist's conduct may have been so bad that the patient passed away under their care. If your loved one 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 dentist for wrongful death, your case has to meet the following legal elements:
- The patient passed away.
- The patient'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 patient's death.
Let's go back to our example. It turns out that even though the emergency room doctors did the best they could, Alex's infection had progressed so terribly that it resulted in a brain infection that killed Alex. Legally, Alex's representative may be able to show that it was Doctor Den's medical malpractice that ultimately caused Alex to pass away.
Remedies and Limits on Recovery
Medical Malpractice: Ordinarily, a patient who survives their doctor'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, loss of income, therapy expenses, lost wages, and lost earning capacity
Wrongful Death: The dead person's court-appointed representative 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.
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 dentists in medical malpractice cases. A medical malpractice attorney can give you legal advice regarding the unique circumstances of your 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 case.
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