Can I Sue a Dentist for Medical Malpractice?

A dentist can be sued for medical malpractice just like any negligent health care professional.

State laws related to medical malpractice aren't limited to doctors; dentists and other health care professionals can also be held liable for injuries caused by the provision of sub-standard treatment.

An incident involving dental malpractice gives rise to a very specific type of civil lawsuit in which the plaintiff alleges medical negligence. Though medical malpractice laws vary from state to state, plaintiffs in these kinds of cases usually need to meet a four-pronged threshold in order to establish the health care professional's liability. Those four prongs usually consist of some variation of:

  • duty under the medical standard of care
  • breach of that duty
  • causation, and
  • damages.

In this article, we'll discuss how to establish these four prongs and prove your dental malpractice case.

Duty Under the Applicable Standard of Care

Your dentist—and every dentist in practice for that matter—is charged with a legal duty to comply with the applicable standard of care in treating patients. The medical standard of care is often defined as the level at which an ordinary, prudent dentist—in good standing, and of same or similar educational background and geographic location—would administer care under the same or similar circumstances. This is simply the legal way of saying that your dentist has a duty to provide care at the same level a similarly educated dentist practicing in your area would provide. Learn more about the medical standard of care in medical malpractice lawsuits.

Breach of Duty

If your dentist fails to treat you in line with the applicable standard of care, the dentist has breached his or her legal duty. Keep in mind that in a dental malpractice case, an unfortunate or unsuccessful result does not automatically equal a breach of duty. Learn more about when it's malpractice, and when it's not.

The practice of dental medicine is not an exact science, and there are no guarantees that any particular treatment will be successful or will sufficiently prevent future complications. However, there are cases where a dentist clearly breaches the standard of care by, for example, extracting the wrong tooth or causing permanent nerve damage with a botched injection. There are also not-so-clear cases of breached duty, and those cases are usually aided through the testimony of a trained medical expert witness, usually someone who is licensed to practice dentistry and has experience in the same specialty as the defendant.

For example, if you file a medical malpractice case against an oral surgeon, your lawyer might retain a medical expert who has also practiced oral surgery, or who at least has professional knowledge with the procedure that led to the alleged malpractice. This expert witness would then offer detailed testimony as to:

1. the appropriate standard of care under the circumstances, and
2. exactly how the defendant dentist's conduct fell short of meeting that standard in the plaintiff's case.

Learn more about how an expert medical witness helps you prove your medical malpractice case.

Proving Causation

Causation is often the key component of a dental malpractice case. It is entirely possible that your dentist could breach her duty to comply with the standard of care without causing you any harm. In fact, you may never know a breach occurred.

There must be a causal relationship between your dentist’s breach of the standard of care and an injury you’ve sustained. When deciding whether you should pursue a dental malpractice suit, consider whether "but for" your dentist’s actions, would your injury have occurred? If the answer is a resounding “no,” then you will likely be able to prove causation, provided you can provide an expert witness opinion supporting your claim.

If the nature and extent of your injuries would have been the same regardless of your dentist’s actions, there may not be a causal relationship between your injuries and your dentist’s alleged breach. In that situation, you will likely find it difficult to prove your case. (Learn more about why medical malpractice cases can be hard to win.)

What Are Your Damages?

The final component required to prove your dental malpractice case is damages. Without compensable losses, your case will be dismissed.

As a plaintiff, you are charged with proving that your dentist’s breach of the standard of care caused you harm. Damages in a malpractice case can be physical (nerve damage, tooth loss), financial (costs associated with correcting your dentist’s mistakes) or non-economic (pain and suffering). As long as your damages were caused by your dentist’s breach of the standard of care, your case will be allowed to stand.

Duty, breach, causation and damages are the four basic building blocks of any dental malpractice case. If you can't make a basic showing of each of the four elements, your case will likely be dismissed without ever being presented to a jury. Expert support from other dental professionals (as witnesses) is essential to proving your case, as is competent legal representation. If you think you’ve been the victim of dental malpractice, you may want to contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney to discuss your case and your legal options.

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