Though dental malpractice lawsuits are less common than malpractice lawsuits in other medical fields, it does happen. And when it happens to you, it can be a frightening experience. You’ve worked hard to build your practice. When you’re facing a claim of malpractice, it feels like everything you have worked for is at risk.
What can you do when a patient is filing a malpractice claim against you? Stay calm and take it one step at a time. Just because a suit has been filed against you doesn’t mean that the suit will be easily won, nor does it mean you’ll find yourself in court. The vast majority of malpractice cases are settled out of court, and many others are simply withdrawn or dismissed.
Whether you’re facing a malpractice claim now or if you simply want to know what to do if that day comes, knowing the right way to approach it is important to a good outcome for everyone. A lawsuit can have a lasting impact on your practice, so make sure you know how to handle it.
Call Your Insurance Company Immediately
The best way to protect yourself from a dental malpractice suit is to make sure you have coverage in place before it happens. Like any situation that insurance is designed to cover, there’s nothing worse than realizing after the fact that you didn’t have what you needed.
Every dentist needs to be protected by medical malpractice insurance, otherwise known as professional or dental liability insurance. No matter how good you are at your job, mistakes happen, and they can be costly. And even if you didn’t make a mistake, proving it can be an expensive legal process. Make sure you’re covered.
Regardless of whether or not you believe the claim against you has merit, the first call you will want to make when you’ve been informed of a lawsuit against you is to your insurance company. They’ll let you know what coverage you have, how it works, and what they need you to do next.
Odds are good that they’ll recommend that you speak with a lawyer, and either way, that’s what you should do. Before making any other moves, make sure you have the advice of a lawyer and your insurance company is fully briefed on the situation.
Gather Your Records
It’s incredibly important that you keep meticulous records in your dental practice. When you face a malpractice lawsuit, it will very quickly become clear why. Those records are the key to providing what you did, how you did it, and when. You’ll want the records from everyone who had contact with the patient, including hygienists and office staff.
Make sure those records are immediately secured, and don’t make any changes or adjustments to them. Make sure that any staff in your office knows that the records are not to be shared, changed, or discussed with anyone.
It’s also a good idea to review any and all published guidelines and standards for the procedure in question. That way you’ll know right away what questions about your handling of those procedures you might be facing from the patient’s attorney.
Discuss the Case Only With Your Lawyer
Although the goal will be to keep the lawsuit a quiet affair, talk happens, and you might find yourself inundated with well-meaning advice from people around you. That might even include other dentists who have been through similar situations.
Remember that when it comes to toeing the legal line, only the advice of a lawyer should be followed.
In fact, you should avoid speaking with anyone about the case aside from your lawyer. Bear in mind that others in your practice, including staff, could be deposed in the case. They’ll have a legal obligation to report what they have witnessed, including things you might have said about the patient or the case. It’s best to stay quiet.
This applies especially to conversations with the patient or with the patient’s lawyer. At some point, you will likely find yourself giving a deposition in the case, but your lawyer will be present. If an attempt is made to talk to you without your lawyer, politely but firmly state that you can’t discuss the case.
Be Prepared for the Long Haul
The length of a malpractice case resolution can vary, but you can expect it to be a long process. Be patient and respond to any requests from your attorney as quickly as possible. Be honest and forthcoming with your lawyer, because they can defend you best when they have all of the facts.
Hopefully, those facts will lead to a swift resolution in your favor. In fact, 72% of medical malpractice cases are either dismissed, dropped, or denied. Even if you do wind up in court to defend yourself, you’ll be well-prepared in advance.
While there’s nothing you want more than for the lawsuit to be in the past, it’s best to let the process play out. Even the best lawyer will need to deal with red tape and legal delays, so don’t let the fact that it’s taking some time to be resolved get you down. It’s a good opportunity to review your record-keeping practices and all of the measures you have in place to prevent a similar situation from happening again.
Ms. Kasperowicz is an insurance and finance expert who writes and researches for the legal advice site, FreeAdvice.com. She is a former Farmers Insurance and Financial Services CSR, and she has been helping people navigate insurance, finance, and related legal matters for more than a decade.