Jury clears doctors of negligence in death of actor Ritter

Times Staff Writer

A Glendale jury on Friday cleared an emergency room doctor of negligence and liability in John Ritter’s death, holding he did everything he could to save the comic actor.

A physician who examined Ritter two years before he died at age 54 was also held blameless. Jurors said they ignored the aura of celebrity surrounding the civil trial, as well as evidence of Ritter’s sterling qualities as a father and actor, in reaching their conclusions.

“I went in there really loving John Ritter a lot,” forewoman Adriana Goad of Northridge, a human resources manager, said. “I left really loving him as a father and as a husband. He was a great man.”

Ritter, 54, was best known for his starring role as Jack Tripper on the hit TV series “Three’s Company.” He was in the midst of another hit show, “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter,” when he was stricken on the set by what appeared to be a heart attack.

Dr. Joseph Lee, the emergency room physician who treated Ritter on Sept. 11, 2003, at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, did not realize the actor was suffering from a rare aortic dissection -- a tear in the inner layer of a large blood vessel near the heart.


Defense attorney Stephen C. Fraser argued successfully that Lee and Dr. Matthew Lotysch, who had examined Ritter two years before his death, gave the actor good care.

“These doctors had the courage to stand up in the face of a celebrity trial because they knew in their heart of hearts that they had done the right thing,” Fraser said. “They did not do anything wrong, but did everything they could to save his life.”

Ritter’s widow, actress Amy Yasbeck, had asked for $67 million in damages after receiving more than $14 million from other medical defendants. She was upbeat after the verdict, saying that a foundation she set up in Ritter’s memory has helped spread awareness of his rare condition.

“So many people have reported to me that they go into an emergency room with chest pains and say, ‘I’m not going out of here until you check me for that John Ritter thing.’ It has saved their lives,” Yasbeck said. “It’s in the front of their minds now.”

Jurors, who voted 9 to 3 against liability for Lee and Lotysch, said they were torn between sympathy for Ritter’s wife and children and their conviction that the doctors were blameless.

An X-ray was ordered during the treatment but never produced during the trial. Yasbeck’s lawyer, Moses Lebovits, argued that the X-ray would have shown the true source of Ritter’s distress.

But even if there had been an X-ray, “at that point, we felt there was no way his life could have been saved,” Goad said. “There was no time to do anything else.”

Jurors also heard evidence that Ritter had been warned about health problems but failed to act decisively to correct them, according to juror Bill Boller, a fire inspector. Ultimately, Ritter’s acts or omissions had no more relevance than the celebrity aura around the trial, he said.

L.A. County Superior Court Judge Laura A. Matz presided over the monthlong trial.