These Docs Behaved Badly, but Should They Have Been Sued?

Jeffrey Segal, MD, JD


May 20, 2015

In This Article

The Case of the False Teeth

An Auburn, Washington, a dentist was an avid hunter. He was also an avid prankster. One of his employees, a dental surgical assistant, raised potbellied pigs as pets. The dentist would periodically taunt his employee with accounts of his boar-hunting trips, including showing her a picture of a skinned pig hanging from a hook. The dentist predicted that the employee's pet pig, Walter, would meet a similar fate. This was all part of the office camaraderie, at least from the dentist's perspective.[8]

The surgical assistant subsequently needed dental work. As a benefit to his employees, the dentist would perform such work for free. The assistant was sedated. Midway through the procedure, while the patient was unconscious, the dentist thought it would be great fun to place a replica of wild boar tusks in the patient's mouth and snap some photos of her for the amusement of his staff.[8]

The dentist had secretly ordered a second set of temporary teeth, shaped like boar tusks, in preparation for this prank. Removing the patient's oxygen mask, he inserted the tusks into her mouth and took photographs of her with her eyes and mouth pried open. The dentist then completed the actual procedure, sans boar tusks. The procedure was a technical success.[8]

The dentist didn't plan to show the photos to his surgical assistant because he deemed them "ugly." He did, however, show them to other members of his staff. During a subsequent birthday celebration for the assistant, the staff, apparently thinking the photos would evoke a laugh, showed them to her. The assistant didn't find them amusing at all. She resigned and sued for battery, invasion of privacy, dental malpractice, and other assorted claims.[8]

The dentist notified his professional liability carrier, asking for legal assistance. He argued that the claim in question took place during a bona fide dental procedure. The carrier denied coverage. The carrier would not provide a legal defense either.[8]

As a result, the dentist was forced to settle with the employee for $250,000 out of his own pocket. He then sued his insurer for bad faith. The Washington State Supreme Court ruled in the dentist's favor, awarding him $1 million.[8] It concluded that the duty to defend is broader than the duty to pay a claim.

The $1 million award was a 4-to-1 return on the dentist's original payment to the patient.


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