Attorneys in the wrongful-death lawsuit against John Ritter’s doctors gave jurors drastically different views Wednesday on whether anything could have been done to save the actor on the night he died.
A proper diagnosis would have led to immediate emergency surgery and saved Ritter’s life, family attorney Moses Lebovits said in closing arguments.
But lawyers for the two doctors being sued for $67 million said they acted properly and insisted there was no way Ritter could have survived.
“We’re not saying John Ritter was negligent and caused his own death,” said attorney Stephen C. Fraser, addressing claims that Ritter failed to seek adequate medical care long before he was stricken.
“There was nothing that could have been done to prevent John Ritter from having an aortic dissection. He didn’t have it because he failed to do follow-up or didn’t take his medication,” Fraser said.
The jury was to begin deliberations Thursday.
Ritter died in 2003 at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank after becoming ill while working on his hit TV show “8 Simple Rules ... for Dating My Teenage Daughter.” The 54-year-old actor was treated for a heart attack but actually died of a torn aorta.
The plaintiffs claim that Dr. Joseph Lee, the cardiologist who was summoned to the hospital that night, mishandled the case. They also claim that Dr. Matthew Lotysch, a radiologist, failed to adequately warn Ritter of a purportedly enlarged aorta after doing a body scan on the actor two years earlier.
Eight other medical personnel and the hospital have settled lawsuits. Ritter’s widow, Amy Yasbeck, and his four children received $14 million from those cases.
Could Ritter have been saved?
Fraser argued that his client, Lotysch, and Lee are experienced, highly regarded doctors who did the best they could under the circumstances.
“This was a rare presentation of a rare disease,” Fraser said. “Before Dr. Lee got to the hospital, Mr. Ritter had been diagnosed (with a heart attack).”
Lee’s lawyer, John McCurdy, said: “Dr. Lee was reasonable in believing he had a patient who was crashing and could die. ... He had to make a decision and he didn’t have a lot of time to make it.”
Lebovits said there was time to get a surgical team together and try to save Ritter’s life, and time to get a chest X-ray that might have revealed the torn aorta.
“There was no need to rush,” he said. “You could get that X-ray done and they didn’t do it. They rushed to make the wrong diagnosis.
“You can’t run away from the reality that John Ritter did not have to die,” he concluded.
Testimony in the trial showed that a chest X-ray was ordered as soon as Ritter arrived at the emergency room but for unknown reasons was never done. Lee was called in later in the evening after Ritter took a turn for the worse and was already diagnosed as having a heart attack.
Plaintiffs’ witnesses testified that a decision to conduct a balloon angioplasty was wrong.
Lebovits said that had Ritter been properly diagnosed: “He would have had surgery. He would have been back at work. He would have survived with his humor and good wit and been entertaining us all.”
At one point, Ritter’s widow collapsed in tears as Lebovits spoke of her loss.
Lebovits also argued that Lotysch should have told Ritter he had an enlarged aorta after conducting the body scan.
Lotysch has testified he did not judge that the aorta was enlarged. But he said he did warn the actor that he had calcification in three coronary arteries and was at risk for heart disease. He said he told Ritter to consult a cardiologist or an internist. Other witnesses said Ritter never followed up.
Another plaintiffs’ attorney, Michael Plonsker, reminded jurors of testimony from television executives about the millions Ritter could have made if his show had been renewed for seven seasons. Plonsker also said Ritter could have had additional millions in income from other theatrical appearances.