Here’s a recent dental law case out of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court that is instructive not so much for the principles of tort law it contains, but as a cautionary tale in using patient testimonials to promote your practice.

The dispute arose out of a Today Show segment 17 years ago on “Getting the Perfect Smile” that featured cosmetic dentists providing care to a poor woman from Maine who had suffered cancer and who could not afford the extensive dental care she needed as a result of her cancer treatment.  If you want to find the video, it’s on the internet and still listed on the dentists’ YouTube channel.

When the show aired, the $15,000 cosmetic treatment plan had not been completed. The dentist was featured live in-studio on the Today Show, replete with “before and after” photos and a beaming patient live in Rockefeller Center.

But all was apparently not as it seemed, and according to the opinion, the dentists failed to complete the course of treatment, and the work that was done did not last more than a year. The patient revoked her authorization to use her image and personal information on their website, which was not honored.

From there, the parties embarked upon decades of litigation, including:

  • A dental malpractice lawsuit filed in 2008, which did not go to trial until 2017;
  • A mistrial at the first trial, with a new trial date pending as of February 2023;
  • Competing suits over the use of the patient’s image and personal information, with counter allegations by the dentists for libel and various other economic injury causes of action. The ancillary suits were eventually moved to Maine, where they continue to fight it out.

We don’t know whether the clinical work was adequate or subpar, of course – and both sides deserve their day in court. But it’s frankly amazing to step back and consider how long this dispute has been simmering. I can understand the dentists’ interest in wanting to protect their reputation after such a public endorsement, and I can only imagine how angry the patient must feel about how she claims to have been treated. In any event, a cautionary tale about featuring patients in your advertising.