A few months ago, a dental malpractice insurance company came to my dental school and shared many different dental malpractice cases with us.
One that stuck out to me was of a young woman who went to the dentist to have a routine procedure performed. After she left the dentist’s office, her tongue was permanently numb. The dentist felt really bad that she could no longer feel anything with her tongue and offered her $10,000. She refused the money the dentist offered her and decided to sue the dentist for somewhere in the neighborhood of half a million dollars. She lost.
Why did she lose? Did the malpractice insurance company simply have extraordinary lawyers? No, the reason she lost was because she lacked one of the four necessary ingredients to winning a dental malpractice lawsuit. I’ll now explain what those four requirements are and then I’ll explain what went wrong in this young woman’s lawsuit.
Below is an interesting paragraph that explains what those four magic elements are that you must have in order to win a malpractice lawsuit against your dentist:
In most malpractice cases the patient must prove all of the following four elements of a malpractice claim: (1) – the existence of a duty, usually implied by the doctor-patient relationship; (2) – a breach of the duty — in malpractice, a breach of the standard of care; (3) damages — in nonlegal terms, an injury; and (4) causation, a causal connection between the failure to meet the standard of care and the injury alleged.
The initial burden of proving malpractice lies with the plaintiff (patient). The patient must prove by a preponderance of the evidence all four elements of the claim.
If you didn’t understand all of that, don’t worry – I’m going to list out the requirements below and talk about each one of them. After researching the topic of malpractice lawsuits, I found that these are the four standard elements you need in order to mount a successful lawsuit against your dentist.
The Four Necessary Ingredients to Successfully Sue Your Dentist
1. The Existence of a Duty – First, you have to prove that your dentist has a duty to care for you. This is implied by the dentist-patient relationship. All you need to show this is documentation that the dentist was actually treating you as a dentist. This can be easily proven.
2. A Breach of the Standard of Care – Next, you have to prove that your dentist violated the standard of care. The standard of care is roughly defined as what is clinically acceptable and recommended given the circumstances.
For example, if your dentist was performing a lingual frenectomy and cut back way too far, damaging a nerve in your tongue, then that would be a violation of the standard of care. The standard of care when performing a lingual frenectomy would be to simply remove that portion of the frenum that is causing a person to be tongue-tied. If a dentist continues cutting into the tongue, then that would be a violation of the standard of care.
3. The Dentist Injured You – Next, you must show that the dentist injured you. This shouldn’t be too hard since the reason most people decide to sue their dentist is because of an injury.
4. Proof that The Violation of the Standard of Care Caused the Injury – You need to be able to prove that your injury occurred because of the dentist’s negligence. For example, let’s say that a guy named Rufus goes to see Dr. Smiley. Rufus hardly ever brushes and has lots of cavities, so he goes to get a few of them filled from Dr. Smiley. While the dentist is drilling, she accidentally hits Rufus’ gums with the drill. A few years later, Rufus has developed gum recession around all of his teeth.
In order to win a lawsuit claiming that Dr. Smiley caused his gum recession, Rufus would have to prove that it was the dentist’s mistake with the drill that caused the gum recession rather than his own poor oral hygiene – a case that would be hard to prove.
You need to be able to directly link your injury with the dentist’s violation of the standard of care.
You Can Lose a Dental Malpractice Lawsuit Even When You’ve Been Injured
You may find it hard to believe, but you can lose a dental malpractice lawsuit when the dentist has harmed you and the dentist can even admit to harming you! It has to do with the second requirement above about proving a breach of the standard of care. This is why the young woman in my opening story lost her lawsuit. Even though the dentist had caused her tongue to be numb, he did what any other dentist would have done under the same circumstances. The problem was that the young woman’s nerve was located in an abnormal spot. It wasn’t the dentist’s fault that her nerve wasn’t where most people’s nerves are, it was simply a tragic event that occurred without anyone to blame.
Even if your dentist has caused harm, you need to make sure the your dentist has violated the standard of care before you file your lawsuit. If your dentist was simply following normal procedure, you probably will have the cards stacked against you when you go to present your case at the courthouse.
It might be surprising to see an article written by a future dentist about how to win a lawsuit against your dentist. However, I believe in justice. If a patient has been harmed by a dental professional and it is the dentist’s fault, then the patient should be compensated in some way. That doesn’t mean I’m a fan of frivolous lawsuits, but I do believe that certain lawsuits can help make the world a better place by revoking the license of those dentists who are truly negligent and harmful to their patients.