A 35-year-old female patient attended her dental practice for a routine restoration on the LL7. When preparing the cavity for filling, limited space within the mouth meant that the GDP needed to angle the head of the handpiece towards the patient's tongue. The dentist noticed a large white patch 2cm x 1cm on the side of the patient's tongue, although there was no bleeding. The handpiece appeared to be working normally.
On discovering the white patch on the patient's tongue the dentist asked her to check if this was something she had had prior to the appointment. The patient confirmed it was not there previously. The GDP apologised that this had happened at the practice. The GDP completed the cavity preparation without a need to angle the handpiece towards the patient's tongue, and the white patch did not get any larger.
The handpiece was sent for repair, and it was returned with no fault.
After the patient had left the consultation room, the GDP checked the handpiece and noticed that the head was overheating when it was running, while the rest remained cool. At this point the GDP spoke to the patient and explained the handpiece was faulty and this had caused a burn to her tongue. The GDP gave advice on how to treat the burn when the local anaesthetic wore off and gave her some Gengigel to apply.
The patient saw her GP the following day and was prescribed antibiotics as she was finding it difficult to sleep, eat or talk.
The handpiece was sent for repair, and it was returned with no fault. The GDP continued to use and monitor it. Several weeks later, the ultrasonic scaler failed and an engineer was called. A fault was identified in the unit that would have caused overheating in the bearings of the handpiece, producing heat in one small area on the head. Until this time, the piece appeared to be functioning normally to the GDP and the other dentists working in the surgery.
The claimant brought a claim for compensation for the trauma. The DDU obtained independent expert advice from a general dental practitioner who was unable to support the dentist's actions, as such trauma can only be reasonably viewed as a breach of duty of care. The dentist agreed that he was responsible for the burn.
The principle of res ipsa loquitur (the thing speaks for itself) applies, which states that without the direct involvement of the dentist the injury would not have occurred. Initially, this could appear to be a product fault, but as the dentist was in control of the handpiece the overheating should have become apparent to him.
The claimant's solicitors initially requested settlement at £13,700 and the DDU counter-offered £2,000. Meanwhile, the claimant's solicitors obtained expert advice that suggested the claimant had sustained some loss of sensation in her tongue. On the basis of this additional information, the DDU offered £5,000, with no admission of liability. This was accepted and the claim was settled.
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