The realm of dentistry has seen significant advancements in patient comfort and procedural efficacy, thanks in large part to various forms of dental sedation. While dental sedation has enabled many patients to undergo treatments without the anxiety and pain that can come with dental procedures, it carries inherent risks. In rare instances, the use of sedatives in dental procedures can lead to tragic outcomes, including death. 

When you're dealing with the shocking death of a loved one, the question is whether anyone will be held accountable. Often times, the criminal law system won't be able to punish a negligent dentist. However, the civil system allows for dental malpractice cases, which could be an avenue for justice, depending on the circumstances surrounding your loved one's death.

The Role of Sedation in Dental Procedures

Image of Dental Procedure Being Performed Under Dental SedationDental sedation involves the administration of medication to help patients relax during dental procedures. The levels of sedation can range from minimal, where the patient is relaxed but awake, to general anesthesia, where the patient is completely unconscious. The sedatives can be administered through inhalation, orally, or via intravenous methods.

Despite its benefits, sedation poses risks, particularly when factors such as improper dosing or inadequate monitoring come into play, or when the dentist fails to properly consider the patient’s medical history. In the most severe cases, these oversights can lead to complications such as respiratory distress, cardiac arrest, or even death.

Causes of Dental Sedation Deaths

Dental sedation deaths can occur due to various factors, including:

  • Over-sedation
  • Lack of proper monitoring
  • Inadequate training
  • Failure to assess medical history
  • Equipment failure

Preventing these deaths requires strict adherence to sedation protocols, proper training, meticulous patient evaluation, and well-maintained equipment. The American Dental Association has established guidelines that, when followed, significantly reduce the risk of sedation-related complications. These guidelines exist to protect patients, and thus when they're not followed and a patient gets hurt or killed, the failure of the dentist to follow these guidelines may serve as evidence of negligence.

Pursuing a Wrongful Death Claim After Dental Sedation Deaths

The untimely passing of a loved one under any circumstance is a profound tragedy, but when the death is the result of a dental procedure gone wrong, the confusion and distress are compounded by the question of what went awry. Dental sedation deaths, while rare, are particularly jarring due to the routine nature of the procedures in which they occur. When these fatalities occur, families may have the option to pursue a wrongful death claim if the evidence points to negligent or reckless behavior.

Understanding Wrongful Death Claims

A wrongful death claim is a legal action brought when someone dies due to the negligence or misconduct of another person or entity. In the context of dental sedation, this might involve the dentist, anesthesiologist, or even the manufacturer of the sedation drugs or equipment. A wrongful death claim is a means of obtaining compensation for the losses suffered by close family members, which include things like the decedent's lost wages, the family members' lost companionship, and funeral expenses.

Establishing Grounds for a Claim

To lay the foundation for a wrongful death claim following a dental sedation death, the claimant must prove that the death was the direct result of negligence or a deliberate wrongdoing associated with the dental procedure or administration of anesthesia. Namely, the claimant must be able to establish that the dental professional's action or inaction deviated from accepted standards of dental care, and this deviation must be shown to have caused the events leading to the death of the patient.

Potential Compensation in Wrongful Death Claims

The compensation sought in a wrongful death claim can include a variety of damages, which are often categorized as either economic, non-economic, or punitive damages. Economic damages include tangible costs such as medical bills, lost wages, and funeral expenses. Non-Economic damages, on the other hand, include the more intangible losses, like emotional distress, mental anguish, loss of companionship, pain and suffering, and loss of consortium.

Whereas economic and non-economic damages exist to make people whole, to compensate them for what they've lost, punitive damages exist to punish the wrongdoer. These damages are not available in most cases and require a showing of particularly egregious behavior. 

Proving a Successful Case

Dental malpractice refers to a situation where a dental professional fails to provide the standard of care that a reasonably prudent dental professional would under similar circumstances, resulting in harm to the patient. To establish a wrongful death claim based on dental malpractice, the claimant must prove the following elements:

  • Duty of Care: The dental professional owed a duty of care to the patient.
  • Breach of Duty: The dental professional breached the standard of care through negligence or omission.
  • Causation: The breach of duty directly caused the injury or death.
  • Damages: The death resulted in specific damages, such as funeral costs, loss of companionship, and the emotional trauma suffered by the family.

The burden of proof is on the claimant to prove each and every element above, and the claimant must prove each element by a preponderance of the evidence. Note that this burden is much lower than the burden of proof in criminal cases, which is "beyond a reasonable doubt." In other words, the claimant only needs to tip the scale ever so slightly in their favor.

Final Considerations

A wrongful death claim cannot bring back a loved one, but it can provide a sense of justice and financial stability for those left behind. It can also protect other patients by showing doctors (and their insurance companies) that they can't get away with negligently killing someone.

If you believe your family member's death during a dental procedure was due to negligence, it is crucial to consult with a personal injury law firm experienced in dental malpractice. With the right legal support, you can navigate the complexities of the legal system and fight for the accountability and compensation that your loved one's memory deserves.

How a Lawyer Can Help After a Dental Sedation Death

For families dealing with the aftermath of a dental sedation death, partnering with a dental malpractice attorney is a crucial step. A law firm with experience in dental malpractice cases can offer comprehensive legal support, which includes:

  • Investigation: Gathering detailed information about the incident, including medical records, witness statements, and other relevant documentation.
  • Expert Testimony: Consulting with medical experts to establish the standard of care and how the dentist breached it.
  • Navigating Legal Proceedings: Handling all aspects of the legal process, from filing the lawsuit to representing the family in court, if necessary.
  • Settlement Negotiation: Working to secure a fair settlement that reflects the magnitude of the loss experienced by the family.
  • Trial Representation: If a settlement cannot be reached, presenting a compelling case in court to fight for justice for the deceased and their family.

FAQs in Relation to Dental Sedation Deaths

Q1: Are there risks with sedation dentistry?

A1: Sedation dentistry does have risks, like any medical procedure. They can include nausea, confusion, and in rare cases, brain injury or death.

Q2: Is IV sedation dentistry safe?

A2: IV sedation is generally safe when administered by trained professionals. However, it's crucial to discuss your health history and medications with your dentist beforehand.

Q3: Can dental anesthesia affect the heart?

A3: Dental anesthesia can cause changes in heartbeat rhythm for some people. If you have a heart condition or any history of heart issues, be sure to tell your dentist before getting anesthetized.

Q4: Is oral sedation safer than general anesthesia?

A4: Oral sedation is different from IV anesthesia, but it's not necessarily safer. IV anesthesia allows for more precise changes in dosage, which can be an advantage. Regardless of which type of anesthesia you choose, you should always talk through options with your dentist first to better understand the pros and cons of oral sedation.

Q5: What are cases involving dental sedation deaths worth?

A5: The value of a given case will depend upon the unique circumstances of that case. Often times, death cases are limited by the insurance coverage available.