This is a review of a dental malpractice claim and subsequent lawsuit filed by a woman who contended her dentist committed malpractice by Negligence and Willful Patient Abandonment.
The dental malpractice claim originated after a woman underwent oral surgery to have four wisdom teeth extracted. After the surgery, she suffered an infection which required emergency medical care. The woman claimed the onset of the infection resulted from her dentist’s negligence.
Additionally, at or about the time of the onset of the infection the woman claimed she was unable to reach her dentist after making several futile attempts to call his office. The woman went on to contend the dentist’s failure to communicate with her subsequent to the surgery constituted willful patient abandonment.
Statement of Facts…
Nina Foote had been suffering for several days from severe and persistent pain and discomfort caused by the impaction of four wisdom teeth. One of Foote’s colleagues recommended Cory Rennon D.D.S., saying he had undergone similar dental surgery with Rennon and found the experience to be positive.
Foote contacted Rennon’s office, and after an initial visit was scheduled for dental surgery to begin to remove the four impacted wisdom teeth.
On February 19th, 2011, Foote underwent the surgery to have the first of four wisdom teeth extracted. Over the next three months Foote had the remaining three extracted. All four wisdom teeth were extracted without apparent incident. Because Foote’s recovery would include additional pain and discomfort during the healing process, Rennon prescribed the pain medication Vicodin.
Approximately 24 hours after the 4th and final wisdom tooth was extracted, Foote’s lips and gums began to swell inordinately, and as the swelling increased pain and discomfort set in. Foote made several attempts to contact Rennon. Each time she was only able to leave a message with the Rennon’s computerized voicemail.
Frustrated with her daughter’s pain and discomfort, and her inability to contact Rennon, Foote’s mother made an appointment with another dentist. Upon examining Foote the new dentist said she would be unable to treat Foote, primarily because of the extent of the infection. Instead, the new dentist referred Foote to the emergency room at Methodist Hospital.
After being examined, Foote was prescribed antibiotics for the infection and Darvocet for the pain and discomfort. 24 hours after taking the medication, Foote had an allergic reaction to the Darvocet. The Darvocet caused her to be become nauseous. The nausea resulted in vomiting.
Foote’s mother rushed her back to the emergency room at Methodist hospital. The infection was still present and seemed to be worsening. Foote was admitted to Methodist hospital for treatment and observation. She remained there for 36 hours until such time as the infection no longer existed and Foote felt well enough to return to her daily activities.
Foote was angered at what she believed to be Rennon’s failure to treat her when the infection set in. She believed Rennon’s failure to be available to treat her resulted in unnecessary pain and discomfort, and her hospitalization. Rennon’s failure to treat, Foote contended, constituted negligence and was grounds for a dental malpractice claim.
Foote’s additional contention was that Rennon’s failure to be available after the dental surgery constituted willful patient abandonment.
Patient abandonment is a cause of action often argued in lawsuits in which patients are unable to communicate directly with their doctors after treatment, or at a time when the patient believed communication with their doctor was a vital part of their treatment.
After several failed attempts to negotiate a settlement agreement in this dental malpractice claim, Foote filed a lawsuit in Superior Court.
The lawsuit alleged Rennon’s negligence and patient abandonment were a direct and proximate cause of the following:
- Additional Dental Bills
- Medical Bills
- Out-of-Pocket Expenses for Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medications
- Lost Wages During Her Recovery
- Pain and Suffering
The Court relied on two specific points of law when considering the dental malpractice claim and whether the defendant Rennon was negligent, or if his actions constituted willful patient abandonment.
The Court stated in its ruling in part:
“For us to find negligence resulting from dental malpractice the Plaintiff has to show the defendant departed from the ‘accepted standard of dental care’ and that departure caused the plaintiff’s injuries.”
The Court went on to say there existed issues of fact about whether the defendant Rennon did depart from the accepted standard of dental care:
“The facts indicate the plaintiff did suffer an infection which in all likelihood appeared subsequent to the surgery. We find though at the completion of the plaintiff’s surgery, she was given a pamphlet indicating the probable effects of surgery and what the recovery would be like. The pamphlet also indicated in case of emergency to either call 911 or proceed to the nearest emergency room.
The plaintiff presented evidence by a dental expert indicating the defendant’s failure to be available for consultation and treatment after the surgery resulted in an exacerbation of the plaintiff’s infection.
We agree if the defendant had been available he would have been in a position to treat the plaintiff. Yet we also find that whether the defendant would have been present to treat the plaintiff or not, the infection would in all likelihood have occurred anyway.
We find no evidence which would lead us to believe the defendant’s actions or inaction in any way contributed to the plaintiff’s infection.
We further find the defendant had an absolute right to take a vacation, and his doing so did not indicate either negligence or willful patient abandonment. We further find there was no indication an infection set in at or before the defendant took his planned vacation.
If the evidence would have shown the defendant knew his actions contributed to the onset of the plaintiff’s infection, and knowing that left on vacation without either treating the plaintiff or making arrangements for another dentist to treat the plaintiff, we might have considered that evidence of willful patient abandonment.
We find no evidence in the dental malpractice claim before us to show the defendant ‘willfully abandoned’ the plaintiff.
On the issue of negligence the evidence presented showed the plaintiff was not ill, nor showing any signs of impending infection at the time of the extractions of her wisdom teeth. The evidence shows the surgery went well.
Additionally the evidence showed the plaintiff was provided after-care material upon which to rely in case of unanticipated problems after surgery.
Even if the plaintiff had gone to the defendant’s office with her infected mouth, the defendant in all likelihood would have had to be referred to the local hospital’s emergency room. At that time, she would have received the care necessary to treat the infection.
We find the defendant’s actions in performing the surgery were proper and followed the standard of care required of similar dentists performing similar surgeries.
We find no evidence to suggest the defendant’s treatment of the plaintiff contributed to the plaintiff’s infection. We also find no evidence that the absence of the defendant in any manner contributed to the plaintiff’s infection.
We therefore find for the defendant. The plaintiff’s cause of action is hereby dismissed.”
Negligence can be established in a medical or dental malpractice claim when there is evidence the treating dentist or physician’s actions deviated from the standard of care required by medical and dental professionals operating in similar environments and under similar circumstances.
Even though there may be occasions where events occur which are unanticipated, as long as the medical or dental professional advised the patient of the possibility of such events and advised of the proper conduct in that instance, negligence will usually not be sustained.
Willful abandonment of patients will sustain a cause of action against a dentist or a physician under specific circumstances. Proving willful abandonment must include a medical or dental professional’s knowledge their patient is suffering from the actions of the medical or dental professional, or as a direct and proximate result of the treatment offered to that patient.
With that understanding, the medical or dental professional either took no action to assure the patient was treated, or in the absence of immediate treatment the medical or dental professional took no action to assure the patient had access to other medical or dental professionals.
That access can be in the way of written information given to a patient after surgery, or in actual statements made by the medical or dental professional or their staff to the patient.
*This case example is for educational purposes only. It is based on actual events although names have been changed to protect those involved. Any resemblance to real persons or entities is purely coincidental.