When Can a Dentist be Liable for Malpractice?

How many times have you heard someone joke or complain about an upcoming visit to the dentist? It’s understandable. First, it’s naturally uncomfortable to have another person working inside one’s mouth. Plus, for many, a dental appointment evokes memories of cavities, drills, Novocaine (or more accurately lidocaine), crowns, and other dental procedures. But in the end, most people recognize that good dental care is an essential part of maintaining optimal health.

Certainly, in Oregon and across the United States, we are lucky to have well-trained dentists using state-of-the-art equipment and offering the newest procedures. But what if a dentist makes a mistake?

Unfortunately, dental negligence sometimes causes serious injury to patients. In this article, we’ll discuss some common forms of dental malpractice and when a dentist can be held liable.

What Constitutes Dental Malpractice?

Just as medical doctors can be held liable for medical malpractice, dentists can be held liable for dental malpractice. To prove a case, the plaintiff (injured patient) must prove the following by a preponderance of the evidence:

  • The existence of a dentist-patient relationship – In most instances, this element is not disputed.
  • The applicable standard of care – The plaintiff must establish the applicable standard of care. This requires the use of one or more expert witnesses, usually another dentist.
  • Breach of the standard of care – The plaintiff must also prove that the defendant dentist breached the standard of care by failing to act as a reasonable dentist would have acted under the same or similar circumstances.
  • Causation – It must be demonstrated that the dentist’s actions caused the patient’s harm.
  • Damages – The plaintiff must prove quantifiable damages.

Common Types of Dental Malpractice

Dental malpractice may be more common than many believe. Some estimates find that one of every seven medical malpractice claims involves dentistry. When dental malpractice does occur, the results can be painful, permanent, and disabling. Dental malpractice can occur in numerous ways, including any of the following:

  • Negligent extraction – Many cases of malpractice are related to improper extraction of teeth. Nerve damage, infections, and other adverse consequences can occur.
  • Failure to diagnose – Dentists may miss the warning signs of various diseases, including cancer.
  • Failure to properly supervise employees – In a particularly disturbing story, CNN reported that 7,000 patients who visited a particular dental office were possibly exposed to hepatitis and HIV. Investigators observed assistants performing procedures that only a dentist should perform, and needles and sterilization procedures were not handled properly. 
  • Negligent performance of dental procedures - In one case cited by the Center for Health Journalism, a 58-year-old woman paid $36,000 for four years of dental treatment. Afterward, she filed suit, alleging that the dentist inserted bridges that fit improperly and caused injuries to her jaws and gums. The patient was awarded $450,000 in damages.
  • Improper use of anesthesia
  • Failure to obtain informed consent

Call with Questions

Evaluating dental malpractice claims can be difficult. Please call the experienced medical and dental malpractice lawyers at Nelson MacNeil Rayfield, and we will be happy to answer any questions you may have about proving dental malpractice. We know exactly what to do and can get you started in the right direction.

While no one appreciates the importance of dentists and dental treatment more than we do, we also believe it is essential that professionals exercise the appropriate standard of care to keep their patients safe and that they be held accountable to those that they harm when they are negligent.


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