While the UK is a leader in the quality of its dental services, mistakes can still be made. Painful dental injury can occur due to delayed, incorrect or substandard treatment. In serious cases, dental mistakes can result in the need for further treatment and even ongoing or irreversible symptoms.
As with any claim for medical negligence, claims for dental negligence can be complex, involving allegations of fault and the need for expert evidence, not only to demonstrate the defendant’s wrongdoing, but to prove the nature and extent of your dental injury.
The following guide for claimants provides a useful overview on how to sue a dentist for negligence and what is involved.
What is a dental negligence claim?
A claim for dental negligence can involve any claim for a dental injury for which a dentist is to blame or has made worse by their wrongdoing. This could include a claim against an NHS dentist or a private practitioner where, in either case, to be able to claim you would need to show that they were responsible for your injury or any exacerbated symptoms. A dental negligence claim could also include allegations of negligent acts or omissions on the part of other dental practitioners, such as orthodontists, hygienists and dental nurses.
Dental negligence is essentially a term used to define an incident or course of treatment where a dental professional has breached the duty to make sure that they take reasonable care to avoid causing you harm as their patient. This duty of care is something that every medical or healthcare professional must comply with. In some cases, the cause of any breach could be due to a blatant disregard of an accepted practice or procedure within the industry while, in others, this may be down to the practitioner’s ignorance or carelessness.
There simply needs to be some want of care on the dental practitioner’s part, where the fact that any mistake may be wholly unintentional does not absolve them from blame.
Examples of dental negligence
Claims for dental negligence can include a number of different scenarios. These commonly include dental misdiagnoses, or treatment or surgical errors. In some cases, the effects of a dental mistake may only be minor, with short-lived symptoms and effects. However, in more serious cases, the symptoms and effects can be both significant and permanent.
The most common cases involving dental negligence include:
Negligent root canal treatment
Root canal treatment is very common and is usually carried out to treat tooth decay, a leaky filling or an infection caused by damaged teeth. In the vast majority of cases, the procedure is problem-free, but dental negligence can cause complications such as fractured teeth, dental instrument residue and failing to remove all of the infected bacteria before attaching the crown. If your dental practitioner provided a poor standard of treatment during a root canal procedure leading to any of these complications, you may be able to make a claim for dental negligence.
Incorrect fitting of a crown or bridges
Crowns are designed to cover a damaged tooth to provide the tooth with extra strength and protection, while bridges are tooth-shaped structures that fill gaps where teeth are missing. If these are not fitted properly, they can cause discomfort or not last as long as they should. If your crown or bridge was inserted incorrectly and you have suffered as a result, you may again have the basis of a claim.
Mistakes during oral surgery
When you have oral surgery, all the surgical risks should be clearly explained to you beforehand so that you can decide whether you would like to go ahead. If complications develop has a result of surgery and you were not warned about these risks, you may be able to make a compensation claim. You may also be able to claim if your dentist made a mistake during your oral surgery, or any other dental treatment, for example, if a wrong tooth was removed or the dentist used excessive force causing injury.
Oral cancer misdiagnosis
Oral or mouth cancer is one of the most common cancers suffered today, where this condition must be caught and treated quickly to avoid further complications. Symptoms can include mouth ulcers, lumps in the mouth and/or neck, loose teeth, numbness, and red or white patches. If you visited your dental practitioner with any of these symptoms and they failed to diagnose you or delayed in your treatment, you may be entitled to make a claim for dental negligence.
Who can claim for dental negligence?
To be able to claim for dental negligence, you must be able to prove, on a balance of probabilities, that there was some wrongdoing on the part of the dental practitioner ‘and’ that wrongdoing caused you some form of harm.
Dental negligence, either in the context of NHS or private care, is essentially where the treatment received by a patient fell below the standard of a responsible body of dental opinion. As such, it is possible to sue a dentist for dental negligence provided you can show, with reference to independent and expert dental opinion, that your treatment fell short of the standard of care considered reasonable in that field of expertise.
How to make a dental negligence claim
When bringing a dental negligence claim, you should seek the advice of a specialist solicitor with experience in handling these types of claims. They will be able to assess the merits of your claim and instruct an expert to provide a diagnosis and prognosis in relation to your injury, in this way providing the basis on which to value your claim for dental malpractice.
Your solicitor will liaise with the insurers for the proposed defendant, setting out the basis of your proposed claim and seeking an admission of liability. In cases where liability is admitted, your solicitor and insurers will seek to agree the value of your claim and secure an out-of-court settlement on your behalf. It is only if liability is denied and/or the value of your claim cannot be agreed that proceedings will need to be issued before the courts.
Importantly, the process of issuing legal proceedings is only about claiming compensation, where the court cannot discipline a dental practitioner to change how they work or make them apologise to you for the pain and suffering that they have caused. When it comes to NHS practitioners, you may want to consider using the NHS complaints procedure, while for private practitioners, a complaint would need to be made to the dental practice itself.
As with medical negligence claims, a claim for dental negligence will often be funded by way of a no win no fee arrangement. Also known as a conditional fee agreement, a ‘no win, no fee’ agreement, is an arrangement between you and your solicitor where you will not be required to pay any legal fees for your lawyer’s services if your claim is unsuccessful.
If the claim is successful, most of your legal costs will usually be paid for by the defendant’s insurers, although there may also be a percentage deduction from your award as part of your arrangement with your solicitor, for example, 25% of any overall compensation.
What will you need to prove in a dental negligence claim?
Many dental negligence claims will settle without even going to court. However, for NHS Resolution to consider making a payout — where NHS Resolution is an arm’s length body tasked with dealing with disputes — you must have sufficient evidence of the defendant’s alleged breach of duty and that this breach caused you a dental injury. This applies equally to a dental malpractice claim being handled by the insurers of a private practitioner.
To prove a breach of duty of care, the dental practitioner must have have acted in such a way that fell short of acceptable professional standards. Further, even if you can prove breach of duty, the harm suffered must be shown to be directly linked with the failure of the dentist to meet appropriate standards. If, for example, there was a good chance that the harm suffered would have taken place even if the dental practitioner had acted differently, then your claim is unlikely to succeed. You must establish both a breach of the dentist’s duty of care ‘and’ causation to be entitled to a compensation payout for dental negligence.
How much is dental negligence compensation?
The amount of compensation for dental negligence claims can vary from case to case, where the value of any award will depend on the nature and severity of any injury suffered because of the alleged wrongdoing and the impact of this on the patient’s life.
For example, if you suffer from a dental injury due to a surgical error or incorrect treatment, one that could have been wholly avoided, you can potentially claim for all of the consequences that follow as a result of this. In contrast, if you suffer from avoidable complications because of an act or omission on the part of a dental practitioner, with increased symptoms or a more protracted recovery process, any compensation will reflect only your additional pain and suffering.
However, almost all compensation in the context of dental negligence claims will comprise two distinct heads of loss: general damages and special damages. General damages is a sum of money to reflect your pain, suffering and loss of amenity, while special damages is to reflect any other losses arising because of this. This can include, for example, loss of earnings for time off work during any recovery period or for further treatment to put right any damage; the cost of any additional treatment needed; the cost of any prescription charges or medication costs, including painkillers and anti-inflammatories; the cost of travel to and from additional dental appointments needed; and any other out of pocket expenses.
Depending on the severity of your dental injury, and any additional losses arising out of the injury suffered, a claim could potentially run into tens of thousands of pounds.
What is the time limit for bringing a dental negligence claim?
The time limit to bring a dental negligence claim is typically 3 years, although there are some exceptions to this rule. For example, if you are under 18 when you suffer an injury as a result of dentist negligence, the 3-year time limit will not run until you turn 18. This essentially means that you will have until your 21st birthday to be able to claim.
However, in the context of any claim for dental negligence, it is best to instruct a solicitor as soon as possible to investigate the matter on your behalf and, where necessary, initiate proceedings. This is because your recollection of what you were advised by your dentist and what happened during your treatment will be fresher in your mind if events were recent.
How long does a dental negligence claim take?
The time involved to complete a dental negligence claim will all depend on the complexity of the facts involved and whether liability is admitted on the part of the defendant. In most cases, unless the facts are clear cut, you will need your solicitor to help you build a case against the dental practitioner in question, typically with reference to expert, independent dental opinion. Expert opinion will also be needed to help assess the value of your claim, where this can take several months or longer to obtain, not least in those cases where extensive remedial treatment is needed and the prognosis for your recovery is unclear.
However, very few dental negligence cases reach court, where NHS Resolution or insurers for private practitioners will very often make offers of early settlement to help minimise the litigation risks. This means that with the right legal advice and representation, you may be able to receive a payout for any dental negligence sooner than you think.
Dental negligence FAQs
Can you claim for dental negligence?
You can claim compensation for an injury sustained as a result of dental negligence, provided you can show, with reference to independent and expert opinion, that your treatment fell short of the standard of care considered reasonable in that field.
How long does a dental negligence claim take?
The time it will take to conclude a dental negligence claim will depend on whether liability is admitted by the dentist or if the claim needs to go to court for a judge to decide if they were at fault.
Can I sue NHS dentist?
It is possible to sue both a private or NHS dentist where, in either case, you will need to show that they breached their duty of care towards you as their patient and that you suffered injury because of this.
How do I know if my dentist was negligent?
If you suspect that your dentist has been negligent in the way in which they have treated you, and you have suffered injury because of this, you should seek legal advice from a solicitor specialising in these types of claims.
The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.