A learning experience

Medical Protection Society (MPS) statistics tell us that, on average, we can expect to be sued twice in our professional careers.

On Thursday 7 December of last year I faced my first case in Cork Courthouse, when a former patient alleged I had extracted the wrong tooth on 4 July 2002. The gap will show how long the litigation process can take.

In a previous article I mentioned the need to institute SID – screen, inform and document – in all our cases. While we are all well acquainted with screening and informing, documenting is an area we all can improve on. In court your notes will be taken apart and if not perfect you may be in trouble.

The drawn out nature of the process can be draining and the support of Eileen, my wife, throughout was my driving force.

The help and encouragement of the MPS was also fantastic. Too often in the past I had looked on the MPS annual fee as an unwanted expense; now I understand it is a necessity.

After the confrontation with the patient, I contacted the MPS straight away. I was immediately put through to Bryan Edlin, a dental advisor and dentist. He reassured me that everything would work out well, and gave wise advice and counsel.

For a year and a half the correspondence between the solicitors grew, and because the patient’s solicitors valued the claim at over 10,000 euros it was listed for the civil court.

I spent a long afternoon in Dublin with John Tiernan of the MPS, at the offices of Hayes solicitors, appointed by the MPS on my behalf. He and the solicitors went through everything in detail with me. Their advice was that the case was spurious and unlikely to succeed.

They had appointed Prof. Duncan Sleeman on my behalf, and, on seeing the notes and OPG X-ray, his advice was that I had proceeded in a correct manner. I was cautioned, however, that cases like this often came down to one party’s word against the other’s. MPS was willing to allow me make the final decision, aware of the possibility of adverse publicity resulting from a court case involving a general dental practitioner.

A follow-up meeting with Bryan Edlin was scheduled for me to receive some final advice and then a discussion of the options with Eileen resulted in my agreeing to go to court.

On the appointed day I turned up at court with my receptionist Sandra, Gill, who had been my nurse in 2002 and who had returned from the UK to give evidence, Prof. Sleeman, who was a rock of support, Louise O’Rourke, my solicitor, and Pierse Sreenan, my barrister.

It was a traumatic time overall, but particularly in the witness box. The opposing barrister really grills you and tries to trip you up. Despite being told not to take it personally, it’s very difficult. It was also hard to experience a local colleague and opposing expert witness giving evidence against me. I know I could never bring myself to do that.

Thankfully, almost three hours later Judge Kenny dismissed the claim and ruled in my favour, stating: ‘The case should have never been taken in this court.’

While traumatic, I have chosen to take a positive view of it and treat it as a great learning experience, one that will hopefully help me avoid that statistical second day in the witness box…

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