Dental Malpractice Insurance

The Complete Guide to Dental Malpractice Coverage

As a practicing dentist, you could be involved in the litigation process at some point in your career. Lawsuits are quite expensive. Even if you win your case, your legal defense fees can be exorbitant. Fortunately, you can protect yourself and your business with insurance for dentists.

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Awards in Dental Malpractice Lawsuits Can Be Quite Large

  • In June 2013, a woman was awarded $350,000 after a root canal lead to nerve damage
  • In June 2013, a man received an $800,000 settlement after his dentist failed to refer him for further testing for a cancerous tumor under his tongue
  • In May 2013, a dental patient received a $2.69 million verdict after suffering nerve damage when a drill bit broke off during a wisdom tooth extraction
  • In November 2012, a patient was awarded $297,000 after suffering bite problems following the placement of a crown
  • In April 2012, a man received a $200,000 verdict because his dentures never fit properly

What Is Dental Malpractice Insurance and What Does It Cover?

Oral surgeons are the most likely in the dental profession to have claims filed against them because they tend to perform more complicated procedures and frequently use anesthesia. However, orthodontists and general practitioners are also at a high risk for claims. Dental malpractice insurance is a type of professional liability insurance that protects most professionals in the dental industry.

There are two types of dental malpractice insurance:

  • Occurrence policies: These policies provide coverage for any claims filed against you for work done while the policy was in effect. This means that if a claim is filed after your policy is expired, or after you have retired, you can still expect full coverage according to the terms of your policy at the time that the work was done.
  • Claims-made policies: This type of dental malpractice insurance costs significantly less than an occurrence policy, but this coverage is based on the time the claim is made against you. These policies usually have a retroactive date of one to five years. This means that if a patient files a lawsuit two years after you execute a procedure, but you have a one year claims-made policy, you will not be covered. Also, unlike occurrence policies, claims-made policies cease to provide coverage once the policy is terminated. If you wish to protect yourself from lawsuits after you retire or after you end your policy, you may need an additional policy called tail-coverage.

Dental malpractice coverage will provide you with coverage for any dental malpractice judgments or settlements. It will also cover any related court costs and legal fees. Most dental malpractice insurance companies will provide you with lawyers.

This insurance coverage will also cover the cost of any necessary legal fees and consultations if you are subpoenaed to appear as a witness or dental expert in a court case. This may happen if a previous or current patient of yours is suing another dentist for malpractice or if the prosecution or defense wishes to establish proper protocol in certain dental cases.

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What Are Some Risks Faced by Dentists?

There are many different reasons why a dentist may be sued for malpractice. Some of the most common reasons for professional liability lawsuits include:

  • Lack of informed consent by the patient or the patient’s legal guardian
  • Failure to refer a patient to a specialist
  • Failure to properly perform prosthodontics work, such fitting crowns and bridges
  • Extracting the wrong tooth or performing a tooth extraction improperly or inappropriately
  • Failure to diagnose or treat TMJ dysfunction, periodontal disease, or oral tumors and cancers
  • Slips, falls, burns, cuts or other injuries suffered by patients while in the dental office
  • Complications resulting from the use of anesthesia

Other common problems include adverse drug reactions, poor orthodontic work and drill injuries. Depending on the extent of the injuries and problems suffered by the patients filing the lawsuit, awards can be quite substantial.

What Happens if a Malpractice Suit Is Filed Against You?

Before a lawsuit can be brought against you, the patient must show three main things:

  • The plaintiff must show that a patient/doctor relationship had been established and that you had a duty to treat the patient
  • The patient must then demonstrate that you breached your duty through misfeasance or malfeasance, or, in other words, that you deviated from the standard of care. This includes any treatment that is done in a manner outside the scope of what a prudent practitioner would do in a similar circumstance.
  • The patient must demonstrate that there were damages. For example, if a patient was inadvertently given the wrong medication but did not have any health problems as a result, there are no damages and case would likely be thrown out.

Once the lawsuit is filed, the malpractice case will enter the discovery phase. The attorneys assigned to you by your insurance company and those representing the plaintiff will take depositions from all parties involved as well as expert witnesses. You can be asked to provide the prosecution with all your patient documentation, so it is extremely important that you keep organized and well-maintained patient notes. If you fail to do so, or your records have been altered or completed after-the-fact, you could run into more legal trouble.

Most of the time, once the discovery phase is complete, the attorneys will either agree to drop the suit or will negotiate a settlement. Very few cases ever go to a juried trial.

How Much Does Dental Malpractice Insurance Cost?

Most dental malpractice insurance companies offer reduced rates to newly established dentists. Lower rates are typically in effect for the first five years you are in business. You may be eligible for discounts if you participate in an annual risk-management seminar or through your affiliation with your dental school if they have a partnership agreement with a dental malpractice insurance company.

Dental malpractice insurance rates can vary significantly from state to state, and policies for dentists in large metropolitan areas tend to be higher than in in rural areas. Recent dental school graduates can expect to pay anywhere from $300 to $1,000 a year for a malpractice policy, depending on the coverage type and the amount of coverage purchased. After practicing five years, these policies will usually cost $2,000 to $3,000 a year.

How Can I Find Affordable Dental Malpractice Insurance?

In the end, it's very important to locate the best insurance for your practice and your risks. Evaluating the risks you face can be easier with some help, either from a lawyer or an insurance agent, or both. Researching the coverage options in your area could start with something as easy as a Google search, or calling around to colleagues you trust. Either way, it's very important to compare dental malpractice coverage before you buy, both from a cost and coverage perspective.

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