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Comic actor John Ritter’s widow says a wrongful death lawsuit going to trial Monday is more about seeking accountability and educating the public about the condition that killed him than the $67 million in damages she is seeking from two doctors.
“I’m asking for responsibility to be taken and recognition to be brought to this problem,” Amy Yasbeck, an actress herself, told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira in an exclusive interview that aired Monday.
Ritter, whose acting career spanned more than three decades, died of an undetected aortic dissection on Sept. 11, 2003.
His family has already received more than $14 million in previous settlements, including $9.4 million from Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, Ca., where Ritter died.
Yasbeck is now targeting two doctors in the current suit — one who interpreted the results of a body scan Ritter received in 2001 and another who treated him the night he died.
But defense attorneys for radiologist Matthew Lotysch and cardiologist Joseph Lee contend Ritter could not be saved from his genetics.
“I really, really believe that for whatever reason, John Ritter’s time was up,” Stephen C. Fraser, Lotysch’s lawyer, told the Los Angeles Times.
Yasbeck, however, feels the former “Three’s Company” and “8 Simple Rules” star would still be here with proper diagnoses.
“John didn’t have a chance,” she told Vieira. “He was never given that chance.”
Ritter was on set for rehearsals of “8 Simple Rules” on Sept. 11, 2003 — the fifth birthday of daughter Stella — when he experienced severe nausea and vomiting. He went to nearby St. Joseph’s at 6 p.m.
Yasbeck said Ritter felt badly that he was “ruining Stella’s birthday.”
“He was smiling at me,” she recalled. “And I said ... ‘I love you.’ ”
Yasbeck indicated that Ritter said “I love you” back with American Sign Language, which they had signed to each other during stage performances.
“And he held it as he went around the corner,” she said. “That’s the last time I saw him till I saw him dead, after he died.”
According to documents filed in connection with the case, Lee thought results of a test showed abnormalities consistent with a heart attack. The doctor ordered anticoagulants and planned a cardiac catheterization. But as the actor’s condition worsened, an aortic dissection — a tear in the largest blood vessel in the body — was found.
“I was sensing things were going on,” Yasbeck said. “And I heard ‘Code Blue’ … and a crash cart going and I'm like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ A doctor came to tell me that it was an aortic dissection, which I had never heard of.”
Ritter was pronounced dead at 10:48 p.m., stunning his family, fans and the Hollywood community.
California regulators faulted St. Joseph’s for failing to perform a chest X-ray during Ritter’s stay, which was ordered by an emergency room doctor.
Jury selection will begin Monday. Once the trial begins in earnest at Glendale Superior Court, attorneys for Yasbeck and the Ritter family are expected to contend that an X-ray would have shown an enlarged aorta, which would have resulted in emergency surgery.
Lee’s lawyers are expected to note that the doctor did not have time to order more tests beyond a catheterization to remove blockages — and the decision to order the catheterization was based on the extremely high frequency of heart attacks versus the very low frequency of aortic dissections.
Two years before his death, Ritter received a body scan at HealthScan America. Attorneys for the plaintiffs will say that Lotysch should have detected that Ritter had an enlarged aorta.
The American Heart Association describes an aortic dissection as when the inner layer of the aorta — the artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body — splits open. It is likely to occur where pressure on the artery wall from blood flow is high.
Symptoms of acute aortic dissection include sudden chest pain, often described as severe and tearing, along with cold sweats and nausea. The peak age for males suffering from the disease is 50-55. Ritter was one week short of his 55th birthday when he died.
Aortic dissection strikes an estimated 10,000 Americans a year and is usually linked to high blood pressure and genetic disorders. One study reports an 80 percent mortality rate when aortic dissections result in rupture, with 50 percent of patients dying before they reach the hospital.
A 2006 study performed by an international team of heart specialists at the University of Michigan Cardiovascular Center, however, showed that 90 percent of patients who survive emergency surgery and hospitalization from the most severe dissection will still be alive three years later.
The study stressed the importance of recognizing aortic dissection versus the diagnosis of a heart attack.
Yasbeck is also trying to promote awareness. After Ritter’s death, his older brother, Tommy, was diagnosed with the same condition.
“All of us said, ‘You know, Uncle Tommy, you gotta go get scanned,’ ” Yasbeck said. “They found it. It was in the exact same spot. He's living proof … He had his operation right before Christmas. And he is alive. And he is here for Stella and John's kids. And they know that their father's brother is alive because he had a chance.”
A funnyman’s career
Ritter was born into show business as the son of singing cowboy star Tex Ritter and actress Dorothy Fay. Although he started at University of Southern California as a psychology major, Ritter eventually caught the acting bug and joined a drama class — against his father’s wishes.
Ritter sharpened his acting chops in various stage performances in England, Holland, Germany and Scotland before graduating in 1971 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in drama.
Guest TV appearances would come on shows like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Hawaii Five-O” and “M.A.S.H,” as well as a regular spot on “The Waltons.” But superstardom didn’t come until in 1977, when Ritter landed the role of affable ladies’ man Jack Tripper on the hit ABC sitcom “Three’s Company” in 1977.
During the show’s seven-year run, Ritter showed his versatility as a comic actor with an uncanny knack for pratfalls. Post-“Three’s Company,” Ritter starred in the short-lived series “Hooperman” in the late 1980s and “Hearts Afire” in the early 1990s.
Notable film roles came in 1990’s “Problem Child” — when he first met Yasbeck — and in 1996’s Academy Award-winner “Sling Blade.”
Yasbeck and Ritter married in 1999. (It was his second marriage.) They also played opposite each other on “The Cosby Show” in 1991 and in a 1996 episode of “Wings.”
While multiple television and film appearances kept Ritter in the public eye, his career enjoyed a major resurgence in 2002 as he played the starring role of Paul Hennessey in ABC’s family sitcom “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.”
It was during rehearsals of an episode during the second season of the show that Ritter collapsed.
The trial, which is expected to last six weeks, is also expected to circle around the very ambiguous subject of lost potential wages.
Ritter had a seven-year contract with Touchtone Studios that earned him $75,000 per episode in the first season of “8 Simple Rules,” with 5 percent raises annually. But Touchstone acknowledges there had been discussions on a renegotiated contract that would have earned Ritter between $250,000 and $350,000 per episode.
“Here’s what's interesting,” Yasbeck said. “(To) the media, it's like the family's asking for $67 million. That’s what John would have made over the rest of his lifetime.
“That number ... it’s sensationalized. I think it’s more sensational that his brother’s life was saved ... I know the money, if there's money from this, is going to start the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health.”
Yasbeck also added that future heart patients should refer to Ritter as a proactive way to determine whether they could have an aortic dissection.
“Walk in to your doctor and say, ‘Can you check me for that John Ritter thing?’ ” she said. “Please! People find it that way all of the time.”