by Richard D. Weber, J.D.
MDA Legal Counsel
Published in the October 2001 issue of the Journal
This month's "Dentistry and the Law" column answers questions submitted by members which require relatively short answers.
Question: I'm updating my office signage. I practice in a professional corporation with other dentists. Are we required to list "P.C." or "Professional Corporation" on the signage? If not required by law, would it be a good business practice to do so?
Answer: Under the Michigan Professional Service Corporation Act, the corporation name must contain the words "Professional Corporation" or the abbreviation "P.C." Similarly, Michigan’s Limited Liability Company Act requires that a professional limited liability company use "P.L.L.C." or "P.L.C." In addition to the legal requirement, it is certainly good business practice to indicate that you are practicing in a professional corporation, not only in your office signage but in your correspondence, invoices and other communications to your patients or the public. Practicing in a professional corporation precludes vicarious liability among the respective dentists. If patients are led to believe that the practice is a partnership, however, vicarious liability might exist, notwithstanding the fact that the entity is a P.C.
Question: Do dentists have a legal obligation to provide after office hours and weekend emergency care for their patients?
Answer: There is no obligation established by statute or case law. The professional standard of practice for the dentist would be the proper focus. Some dentists, such as oral surgeons, might have a greater responsibility to provide emergency care than general dentists. Regardless of whether the dentist is a general dentist or a specialist, however, it would be wise to at least provide a recorded message on the dentist's telephone that would refer a patient to the local hospital emergency room if the patient deems the case to be an emergency.
Question: I have several patients who failed to pay their accounts. I do not want to use a collection agency or go to small-claims court. I would like to simply garnish their wages. How do I go about doing this?
Answer: Garnishment proceedings are not available unless and until a judgment is obtained against the patient. Therefore, a successful lawsuit against the patient is necessary to obtain the judgment as a condition precedent to garnishment.
Question: If I were to sublease space within my office to a radiographic service, and that service is not owned by me, what are my legal liabilities?
Answer: If the lessee is truly a separate entity without any connection with the lessor dentist other than the lease, there should be no legal liability imposed upon the lessor dentist unless: (1) the lessor dentist represents that the lessee radiographic business is an agent or part of the dentist's practice which could lead a patient to believe that the radiographic service was part of the dentist's practice and make the dentist liable under the doctrine of ostensible agency; (2) the dentist refers his/her patients to the radiographic business having reason to believe that the radiographic business is other than a competent, licensed business; or (3) the referring lessor dentist receives an economic benefit or kickback for the referral.
All of these exceptions raise fact intensive issues, particularly with respect to referring patients to an entity in which the referring dentist has a financial interest. An opinion should be obtained from the dentist's attorney who can review the facts and provide a legal opinion before any dentist engages in this activity.