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

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.

"I'm comfortable that a reasonable juror would understand that Dr. Lee was between a rock and a hard spot and had to make a judgment call," said John McCurdy, Lee's lawyer.

The family's lawsuit also calls into question the care Ritter received two years earlier, at another facility.

Although he believed himself to be in good health, his wife said, he had received a body scan at HealthScan America to look for abnormalities.

The plaintiffs say radiologist Lotysch should have noted that Ritter's aorta was enlarged then. Defense experts say it wasn't.

Lucrative contract

If a jury finds the doctors at fault, it will have to place a dollar value on Ritter's life.

At the time of his death, Ritter had a seven-year contract with Touchstone Studios that called for him to receive $75,000 per episode of "8 Simple Rules" in the first season -- with 5% raises every year. Assuming the series remained on air, he would have received up to $14.7 million, plus residuals.

Representatives for Ritter and Touchstone had started -- but not completed -- discussions on renegotiating the contract. A Touchstone executive said in a deposition that Ritter would have earned "between $250,000 to $350,000" per episode under a new contract and that he would have received a share of syndication profits.

That would equal at least $67 million if the show had lasted seven seasons.

Most malpractice plaintiffs never even come close to pressing such large claims. Damages for "pain and suffering" are limited to $250,000 in California. Typically, those who receive larger payouts can prove substantial economic damages, such as ongoing medical expenses or lost earning capacity.

Fraser says the Ritter family's claim is based on pure speculation. "They assume a very, very rosy scenario," Fraser said. "It might as well be $1 billion. Who could afford to pay a judgment like that?"

In any case, he said, "How many millions more do millionaires . . . need?"

Moses Lebovits, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said Ritter's wealth should not be an issue. "The role of the judicial system and the role of the jury is to do justice, regardless of the wealth of either side," he said.

Yasbeck said she knows the trial will provide a public airing of Ritter's health and potential wealth and attract plenty of media attention. She said she hopes it also will bring awareness to aortic diseases.

"It's never comfortable, but the idea of the awareness that this brings to the issue trumps that," she said. "My discomfort is nothing compared to people who are losing their family to aortic dissection. I can be uncomfortable for however long the trial goes. I'm ready."

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charles.ornstein@latimes.com

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