A dentist is a medical professional who has completed years of training, passed a rigorous licensing exam, and participated in continuing education courses required to renew his or her license. As medical professionals, dentists are held to high standards when it comes to their treatment of patients, just as doctors and other health care professionals are. A dentist in Florida is required to provide a standard of care that is at least equal to that which another reasonably competent dentist practicing in the same area of specialization in Florida would deliver under the same or similar circumstances. So, the answer is yes, you can sue your dentist for malpractice. But to succeed, there are four elements that you will have to be able to prove.
Elements Required to Prove Dental Malpractice
Duty of Care
First, in order to sue a dentist, you need to establish that the dentist you are naming owed you a professional duty of care. This part is usually easy: you need to show that a doctor/patient relationship existed. If so, the dentist had a duty to provide you with the standard of care that another reasonably competent Florida dentist in the same practice area (i.e. general dentistry, endodontics, orthodontics, oral surgery, etc.) would give when performing the same procedure in the same circumstances.
Breach of Duty of Care
Second, you will need to show that the dentist breached that duty of care; that is, that the dentist either did something that should not have been done or neglected to do something that should have been done while caring for you.
The important thing to understand is that malpractice, or lack thereof, has to do with the standard of care—not the outcome of the procedure. In other words, the dentist may have done everything by the book, but the results may not necessarily be what you would have wished. Things can go wrong that are not the dentist’s fault. Dentistry, like medicine, is not an exact science, and there are circumstances in which unexpected complications may arise that affect the results.
So, how do you know which it was . . . malpractice or an unforeseeable consequence of the procedure? If there was not a blatant error, such as the dentist extracting the wrong tooth, for example, you will usually need to bring in at least one expert witness, who should be another dentist who performs the same procedure, or perhaps one who teaches that type of procedure at an accredited dental school, to testify as to what the standard of care is and how your dentist deviated from the expected standard. Therefore, it is important that you are represented by a dental malpractice attorney who has access to experts in the field who can be called upon to testify in your case.
Next, you will need to prove that the deviation from the standard of care caused you to suffer actual damages. If the dentist did something wrong but the error didn’t cause you any harm, you don’t have a case. If the harm you suffered would have occurred anyway, regardless of the treatment by the dentist, you would likewise have no case. You must be able to prove that the dentist’s wrongful act or omission was the direct cause of the harm you experienced. Here again, the expert witnesses your lawyer hires can often make the connection needed to prove causation.
Finally, you will have to prove your damages. These may be financial damages such as the cost having additional work done to correct the dental error, or they may have to do with pain, suffering, embarrassment, or damage to your quality of life, for example if the dentist damaged a nerve that caused you to drool uncontrollably or extracted the wrong tooth and left you looking like a Halloween jack-o-lantern.