John Ritter's family seeks millions at trial

February 5, 2008 7:18:03 AM PST
Actor John Ritter's death is now being debated at trial.

More than four years after he died, Ritter's relatives are taking their $67 million lawsuit to trial Tuesday, claiming the actor would have survived if two doctors had recognized his heart abnormality and not treated it as a heart attack.

The procedure for treating a heart attack is the "exact opposite" of what a patient with Ritter's condition would have undergone, according to legal papers filed by lawyers for the plaintiffs.

"One would imagine that having a doctor treating you would increase your chances of survival rather than decrease them," said lawyers for Ritter's family.

Defense lawyers say that Ritter's condition - aortic dissection, a tear in the aorta - mimics a heart attack and that the doctors did nothing wrong.

The trial, which begins with jury selection Tuesday in Superior Court, is expected to delve into radiology scans and the world of emergency medicine, where split-second decisions can mean life or death.

Hollywood will be a subtext during the trial, with executives slated to testify about how contracts are negotiated and how much Ritter might have earned if he continued with his hit TV show, "8 Simple Rules ... For Dating My Teenage Daughter."

Ritter's second wife, Amy Yasbeck, and his four children have already received a reported $14 million in settlements with nine other medical entities, including the hospital where he was treated.

They are suing radiologist Matthew Lotysch and cardiologist Joseph Lee for negligence. The doctors said they did nothing wrong.

Ritter, a beloved comic performer and the son of Western star Tex Ritter, was 54 when he died in September 2003 after being taken to the emergency room from the set of his sitcom.

Lotysch had performed a full-body scan on Ritter two years before his death and found no abnormality in his aorta. The plaintiffs say he should have noted that Ritter's aorta was enlarged. Defense experts expected to testify will dispute that the aorta was enlarged at the time.

Lotysch's lawyer, Stephen C. Fraser, said the radiologist found calcifications in all of Ritter's coronary arteries and told him to follow up with a cardiologist.

"He did no follow-up," Fraser said, noting that Ritter also had very high cholesterol.

Lee was the cardiologist summoned to the emergency room at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank after Ritter was taken there complaining of nausea, vomiting and chest pain.

Plaintiff's lawyers say a chest X-ray should have been performed before Lee treated Ritter.

The doctor's lawyers say that there wasn't enough time for that and that a chest X-ray ordered earlier inexplicably was not done. They say Ritter's symptoms were more consistent with a heart attack than anything else and had to be treated quickly.

"He did not have classic aortic disease," Fraser said. "He never described excruciating pain."

Lawyers for the family declined to discuss their case, but they said in legal briefs that experts will testify that Ritter would have survived longer without treatment for a heart attack.

Attorney Michael Plontsker said the family intends to use proceeds from the lawsuit to establish a foundation to educate the public about aortic dissection disease.