Can I Sue a Dentist for Medical Malpractice?

A dentist can be sued for medical malpractice just like any negligent doctor. Here's what you'll need to prove.

To sue a dentist for medical malpractice, you must be able to prove to a judge or jury that you suffered an injury as a result of a dentist's provision of sub-standard care. Dental malpractice -- much like medical malpractice -- gives rise to a very specific type of negligence lawsuit. And any lawsuit that is based on principles of negligence must meet a four-pronged threshold to establish proof. Those four prongs are duty, breach, causation and damages. In this article, we'll discuss how to establish these four prongs and prove your dental malpractice case.

A Dentist's Duty

Your dentist -- and every dentist that practices for that matter -- is charged with a legal duty to comply with the standard of care in treating patients. The standard of care is 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 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. If you live in Detroit, MI, your dentist is not held to the same standard of care as a dentist in Alaska or Ohio.

Breach of Duty

If your dentist fails in his duty to provide you with care in line with the local standard of competent care, he has breached his duty. Keep in mind that in a dental malpractice case, an unfortunate or unsuccessful result does not automatically equal a breach of duty.

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 nerve damage with an 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.

In this way, proving dental negligence is much the same as proving medical negligence.  

Proving Causation

Causation is perhaps the key component when proving dental malpractice. It is entirely possible that your dentist could breach his 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 dental opinion supporting your claim.

If your injury would have occurred 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.

What Are Your Damages?

The final component required to prove your dental malpractice case is the damages component. Without damages, 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, broken teeth), financial (costs associated with correcting your dentist’s mistakes) or non-economic (embarrassment because your once-winning smile has been forever ruined by an orthodontist). As long as your damages were caused by your dentist’s breach of duty, 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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