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Ritter's family says he didn't have to die

Lawsuit faults the care the actor received from two doctors. They say they did nothing wrong.

January 24, 2008|Charles Ornstein | Times Staff Writer

Comic actor John Ritter died on his daughter's 5th birthday in September 2003. The next day, his widow, actress Amy Yasbeck, told the girl that her dad's death was unavoidable.

Since then, Yasbeck has come to believe the story she told their daughter Stella was wrong.

"The doctors told it to me like I was 5 and I told it to her like she was 5," Yasbeck said in an interview with The Times. "The truth is, it's a lot more complicated and it's a lot more sad."

Early next month, in response to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Yasbeck and Ritter's four children, a Los Angeles County jury will be asked to decide: Did Ritter have to die?

Lawyers for the plaintiffs fault the care Ritter, 54, received from two doctors -- one who interpreted the results of a body scan he had in 2001, the other who treated him the night he died.

Defense attorneys say their clients did nothing wrong and that Ritter would have died no matter what doctors did.

The trial will feature high-stakes legal questions, celebrity cameos and dueling medical opinions by researchers who have written books on the arterial condition that killed Ritter.

Besides the medical issues, the proceeding probably will delve into sensitive areas for Hollywood bosses: how much successful television stars are worth and how that question is settled in contract negotiations.

It also will highlight how differently malpractice lawsuits play out when the alleged victim is wealthy. Ritter, best known for his starring role as Jack Tripper on "Three's Company," was an actor with tremendous earning potential, the plaintiffs' lawyers say. Because of his subsequent success on the series "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter," his family is asking for more than $67 million in damages -- a stratospheric sum compared with most such claims.

The family already has received more than $14 million in settlements, according to court records, including $9.4 million from Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, where he died.

No one disputes that doctors at St. Joseph treated Ritter as if he were having a heart attack. Both sides agree that his true condition -- an aortic dissection, which is a tear in the largest blood vessel in the body -- was not identified until right before his death.

Lawyers for the two remaining defendants, radiologist Matthew Lotysch and cardiologist Joseph Lee, say Ritter was doomed by his own biology.

"I really, really believe that for whatever reason, John Ritter's time was up," said Stephen C. Fraser, who represents Lotysch.

Yasbeck, Ritter's second wife, who married him in 1999, said the doctors missed signs of her husband's condition until it was too late to save him.

The trial is about more than money, she said. As is typical, none of the hospitals, doctors or other entities that have settled with the family have admitted guilt or said they were sorry. Yasbeck said she wants a public accounting of what happened.

"You can't treat my kid's dad for something and kill him in the process," she said.

"I think the money will show how angry the jury will be about what happened to John and what could happen to them."

Illness on the set

On Sept. 11, 2003, Ritter was on the set of "8 Simple Rules" when he experienced sudden nausea and vomiting, according to documents. He felt faint and had chest pain. At about 6 p.m., he went to nearby St. Joseph.

An emergency room doctor ordered tests, including a chest X-ray, and prescribed aspirin and anti-nausea medicine, records show.

Around 7:15 p.m., a test showed abnormalities that the doctor thought were consistent with a heart attack. Lee, who was on call, was at Ritter's bedside at 7:25 p.m.

Lee ordered anti-coagulants, which are standard treatment for a heart attack, although they can exacerbate symptoms of an aortic dissection. He also quickly planned a cardiac catheterization. During the procedure, Ritter's condition worsened and a large aortic dissection was found.

Attempts to save Ritter failed, and he was pronounced dead at 10:48 p.m. No autopsy was performed.

Aortic dissection, which can be fatal if the artery ruptures or blood flow is inhibited to the coronary arteries, is notoriously difficult to diagnose. At issue in this case is whether Ritter's symptoms were more consistent with a heart attack or an aortic dissection.

The month after Ritter died, state regulators faulted the hospital for lapses in care, including its failure to perform a chest X-ray ordered by an emergency room doctor.

Had Lee obtained a chest X-ray, the plaintiffs' lawyers and their experts say, it probably would have shown that Ritter had an enlarged aorta. With that information, he could have been taken to surgery and saved, they said.

Lee's lawyers point to Ritter's ominous vital signs and say Lee did not believe he had time to order more tests before taking him for a catheterization to remove possible blockages. They note that patients with chest pain are about 100 times more likely to be suffering a heart attack than an aortic dissection.

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