Yesterday afternoon a jury in Chief Judge Robert Shelby’s courtroom returned a verdict for plaintiff after a week-long dental malpractice trial. The case is Gail O’Neal v. P.K. Clark/WhiteCap Institute. Ms. Gail O’Neal, a 70-year old widowed rancher from Lander, saw Dr. P.K. Clark at WhiteCap Institute in Heber for dental implants in the right upper quadrant following a history of periodontal disease.
According to plaintiff’s experts, there was an ongoing sinus infection in the right sinus that made the implants unwise, particularly in view of especially thin bone protecting the sinus. Nevertheless, Dr. Clark went forward with the implants in May 2012. An oroantral fistula and sinus infection ensued, resulting in a series of attempts by Dr. Clark to “clean out” and treat the infection, but no referral to an ENT or an oral surgeon.
Eventually, Ms. O’Neal left Dr. Clark and saw Dr. Michael Stern, an oral surgeon in Jackson, who then referred her to an ENT, Dr. Merritt. Sinus surgery was performed by Dr. Merritt, and later Dr. Stern performed another surgery to remove the fistula and close the sinus perforation. This surgery was successful in closing the hole, but Ms. O’Neal was left with no upper right teeth, and no way of getting implants or securing a partial or full bridge in that area.
Defendant asserted some of the problem was due to Ms. O’Neal’s own fault because she didn’t disclose a history of sinus problems. (She denied this history.)
Plaintiff’s experts (including Dr. Stern) testified that Dr. Clark breached the standard of care in a number of ways, including failing to recognize the probable infection on the pre-op CT scans, not giving post-op antibiotics, failing to refer the patient out to a specialist before surgery, or at any of the three followup procedures when she was showing no improvement in her condition, and continuing to place foreign materials in an infected area.
All of this was strongly disputed by Dr. Clark. The primary defense was that an oroantral fistula is a known and unavoidable risk of extractions of upper molars, and was not in this case due to any negligence. Dr. Clark also asserted that some of the blame for the bad outcome lay with another (non-party) treating dentist in Wyoming.
Economic damages claimed were about $56,000 in past medical expenses and $16,000 in extra ranching expenses. No future medical expenses were claimed.
The federal jury found that Dr. Clark breached the standard of care and awarded $201,000 to Ms. O’Neal: $45,000 for medical expenses, $5,000 in lost revenue, and $150,000 in non-economic damages. However, the jury also assessed 15% comparative fault on Ms. O’Neal and 35% on the non-party treating dentist, meaning that the judgment for plaintiff will be reduced to around $100,500.