How dentists can avoid malpractice claims and lawsuits

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A dental malpractice claim can be expensive, with settlement costs ranging from tens of thousands to $1 million or more. You can reduce your chance of a claim through communication and documentation.
A closeup of a woman's smile at the dentist.

Avoiding claims in the first place can help you avoid costly litigation, as well as any potential damage to your reputation. However, you’ll still need medical malpractice coverage and other types of insurance to fully protect your dental practice.

“Finding the best insurance coverage for your business operations is important to offset the out-of-pocket expenses that may arise against your business,” says Denise Smith, Senior Sales Agent at Insureon. “Insurance can cover claims such as property damage, slip and fall incidents, or customer injury lawsuits.”

Let’s consider the most common types of dental malpractice claims and how to avoid them.

What is medical malpractice for a dentist?

Like other healthcare professionals, dentists must be vigilant about the types of situations that can lead to expensive lawsuits.

Dentists are expected to recognize dental ailments, such as a cavity or a cracked tool, and then recommend treatment based on these diagnoses. However, if a patient does not understand the risks involved with a treatment or are unsatisfied with the results, they could pursue a malpractice lawsuit.

When patients accuse dentists of malpractice, they are alleging that the dentist’s services or advice violated a professional standard of care. In other words, the work failed to meet reasonable expectations based on your professional training and experience.

In order to help prevent the financial damage of a malpractice claim, it is important to not only understand and recognize the situations that could lead to a lawsuit, but also ensure that you have the proper insurance coverage in place.

How do I get dental malpractice insurance?

It's easy to get free quotes for medical malpractice insurance with Insureon. We'll ask you basic facts about your business to help you find coverage that matches your unique risks and meets the requirements in your state.

Contact our dedicated medical malpractice insurance specialist to get started.

Which disputes most often lead to dental malpractice claims?

Dental malpractice claims make assertions about the quality of your work. Even a frivolous lawsuit can be expensive. It’ll require a good dental malpractice attorney or law firm that specializes in these types of cases.

That’s why it’s important to be aware of the common malpractice claims made against dentists. These include:

Allergic reactions and other complications. A patient could develop a new medical condition between visits that your practice ought to know about, such as an allergy to certain drugs, food, or latex. Make sure you regularly update your patient’s medical information and verify it before each visit.

Failure to give patients all the information they need. For example, a patient could claim that you didn’t fully explain a treatment plan and any risks, so the patient couldn’t make an informed decision.

Failed treatments or procedures. This could include claims of tooth damage or injury from botched restorations, root canals, faulty dental implants, veneers, crowns, and more. Patients could also claim that you failed to spot decay or another problem during a routine oral exam, which led to bigger, more expensive problems, such as an abscess.

Failing to recognize oral cancer. A patient might accuse you of providing substandard care by failing to spot an early sign of oral cancer.

Misdiagnosis. Patients could claim that you diagnosed a condition incorrectly, that you diagnosed it late, or that you failed to diagnose it at all.

Nerve damage. Common claims allege that a dentist damaged the lingual nerve or inferior alveolar nerve, while giving anesthesia or removing teeth.

Products liability. Dentists can be blamed for using faulty products, oral devices, and materials – even though the dentist did not manufacture the items.

Questionable professional advice. Patients can claim that you failed to provide solid professional counsel. They can also claim that you failed to refer them to a specialist when it was necessary.

What are some examples of dental malpractice cases?

A victim of dental malpractice in Michigan received a $2.75 million jury verdict in a medical malpractice lawsuit in 2022, after a dental procedure resulted in pain, suffering, plus numbness in his mouth and the impairment of his ability to chew.

The claim, against Dr. Jeffrey Osguthorpe and the dental practice Summit Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, involved dental care that Osguthorpe performed in 2017 and 2018. The dental work involved wisdom teeth removal and a CT scan that revealed a “soft tissue density mass.”

The lawsuit said the patient agreed to dental treatment involving an “incisional biopsy,” but the dentist performed an “excisional biopsy” without notifying the patient or gaining his consent. It alleged that Osguthorpe misdiagnosed the condition, failed to perform adequate testing and diagnosis before surgery, and failed to schedule the procedure in a hospital.

The patient suffered massive bleeding that required emergency treatment from an oral surgeon, and hospitalization, according to the suit.

In 2019, a teenage girl and her parents received a $625,000 jury award in Virginia over the results of a wisdom teeth extraction in 2014.

The defendant, Dr. Corey C. Crigler and Blue Ridge Oral Surgery, was accused of causing nerve damage, immense swelling, and bruising that required nerve repair surgery.

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Professional liability claims and lawsuit examples

Most businesses will experience a disagreement with a client or business partner over a perceived work mistake or professional error at some point, which could lead to a professional liability lawsuit. The defense costs over an alleged error can be considerable, even if you’re not at fault.

What are the best ways to prevent a dental malpractice lawsuit?

The best way to “win” a malpractice lawsuit is to stop it before it happens. Here are some tips that you can try in your office:

Don’t avoid the Dental Board’s letter. At some point, you may receive an inquiry from your state’s Dental Board, which must investigate all complaints – even if they’re unfounded. You’ll need to cooperate with the Board, even if a claim is baseless, so it can reach a favorable conclusion. You should also notify your insurance provider, so it’s aware of the situation and can recommend legal counsel, if necessary.

Communicate clearly with your patient before treatment. Never start treating patients until you are sure they understand exactly what you are going to do and the risks involved. Don’t just assume they have background knowledge of certain dental procedures. Speak plainly and encourage them to ask questions. You may even want to have your patients sign a consent form that states they understand the treatment and risks.

Follow up with missed or cancelled appointments. Your office should have written protocols in place for following up with patients who miss or cancel an appointment – even if it’s just a six-month cleaning. A missed appointment means you might miss the opportunity to diagnose a condition as soon as possible, which leaves you vulnerable to claims of negligence.

Stay in your comfort zone. If patients come to you with an issue that you aren’t comfortable diagnosing or treating, always refer them to a specialist that you trust. If you decide to go ahead with an extraction that ends up failing, patients (and their lawyers) can argue that a specialist would have been a safer route and that you should have known better.

Keep track of medical histories. Your patients may have developed allergies or new medical conditions between visits that you’ll need to be aware of. Make sure you ask about any changes in their health care, and document this in your records.

Keep accurate records. Do this even if that means recording the fact that you broke an instrument in a patient’s canal. Breaking the tip of the file in the canal does not violate a standard of care, but it should be noted both to the patient and in the patient’s file. If there is a complication or if the patient finds out about it later, the reaction could be surprise, anger, or a claim filed against your practice.

Look for signs of oral cancer. If a patient develops any type of cancer in their mouth that you failed to identify, they might accuse you of failing to provide adequate care. Make sure you’re aware of the early signs of cancer and look for them with every patient as part of their dental health.

Never erase anything in a patient’s chart. Not even mistakes. If you do accidentally record a mistake in a chart, simply cross it out and note that it is an error. If that patient sues later and your records are examined, it’s going to look suspicious if they were changed. For the same reason, you should never add information to a chart after a patient has filed a claim.

Despite all these precautions, it’s still a good idea for dentists to carry malpractice insurance, which is a type of professional liability insurance (also called errors and omissions insurance) for healthcare professionals.

How do I get dental practice insurance?

It's easy to get dentistry business insurance if you have your company information on hand. Our application will ask for basic facts about your business, such as revenue and number of employees. You can buy a policy online and get a certificate of insurance with Insureon in three easy steps:

  1. Complete a free online application
  2. Compare insurance quotes and choose policies
  3. Pay for your policy and download a certificate

For medical malpractice coverage, you can contact our dedicated agent by sending an email to [email protected] or by calling (312) 854-2919. They can help you find insurance quotes for malpractice and other common policies that your practice needs.

Insureon's licensed insurance agents work with top-rated U.S. providers to find the right insurance coverage for your dental practice, whether you work independently or hire employees.

Mike Mosser, Content Specialist

Mike spent several years as a reporter and editor covering politics, crime, and the world financial markets. He’s worked for several newspapers, a financial newswire, and a monthly magazine. As a copywriter, Mike has produced SEO-based content, marketing, public relations, and advertising work for a variety of companies.

Content verified by: Denise Smith, Senior Sales Producer

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