Doctors cleared in John Ritter's death

March 14, 2008 2:55:21 PM PDT
A California jury has cleared a cardiologist and a radiologist of negligence in the diagnosis and treatment of actor John Ritter. Jurors said the majority believed the cardiologist summoned to the hospital after Ritter was diagnosed with a heart attack had no time to order a chest X-ray that might have found the tear.

They also said the radiologist, who gave Ritter a body scan two years earlier, did advise Ritter of coronary problems and to consult other doctors, but his failure to do so did not cause his death.

The 9-3 verdict means there is no damage judgment against the doctors, neither of whom were present when the jury reached a decision in the wrongful death lawsuit brought by Ritter's widow and children.

Verdicts do not have to be unanimous in civil cases.

"I disagree with the jury's decision but I believe in the system and I respect it," said the widow, Amy Yasbeck. "It inspires me even more to find, with these brilliant medical minds, a path to diagnose aortic diseases."

Yasbeck said she has started a foundation in her husband's name to work on the condition.

Lawyers for Ritter's family claimed Ritter's death resulted in a loss of as much as $67 million in future earnings. Eight other medical personnel and Providence St. Joseph Medical Center previously made settlements with the family totaling $14 million.

Neither doctor was present for the verdict, which was reached on the second day of deliberations and was read quickly. Attorneys said Dr. Matthew Lotysch, the radiologist, and Dr. Joseph Lee, the cardiologist, were at work.

Attorney Stephen C. Fraser, who represented Lotysch, credited jurors with being sophisticated and intelligent.

"The system worked and we're very, very happy that they did the right thing," Fraser said.

Defense testimony characterized the aortic dissection as lethal and contended that even with surgery the outcome would have been the same.

When he died on Sept. 11, 2003, Ritter was starring in the TV show "8 Simple Rules ... for Dating My Teenage Daughter." He was 54.

During the trial, attorneys for the families sought to show that Lee rushed to a faulty diagnosis and failed to have a chest X-ray taken that would have revealed the torn aorta, resulting in surgery that would have saved him.

Testimony showed that an X-ray was ordered as soon as Ritter arrived at the emergency room but for unknown reasons it was never done. Lee was called in later in the evening after Ritter was already diagnosed with a heart attack.

Defense testimony characterized the aortic dissection as lethal and contended that even with surgery the outcome would have been the same.

Lotysch testified he told Ritter he had calcification in three coronary arteries and should consult other doctors. But in a related finding, the jury decided that Ritter's failure to pursue that medical consultation was not a cause of his death.