Jury Clears Ritter Doctors

Panel votes 9-3 against finding star's physicians liable for tragic death in $67 million suit

By Joal Ryan Mar 14, 2008 7:20 PMTags

John Ritter's tragic death cannot be blamed on a pair of doctors.

So a jury essentially decided Friday in rejecting a wrongful death claim made by the Ritter family.

The split, 9-3 verdict in the civil trial in Glendale, California, came after a day or so of deliberations, and weeks of testimony frequently marked by tears from Ritter's famous coworkers, friends and his widow, actress Amy Yasbeck.

"We are still convinced these doctors did something inappropriate, but the jury system worked," said Michael Plonsker, an attorney from the Ritters.

At issue in the $67 million lawsuit, brought by Yasbeck and Ritter's four children, was whether a radiologist, Dr. Matthew Lotysch, was negligent in a body scan he performed on Ritter in 2001, and whether a cardiologist, Dr. Joseph Lee, was negligent in care he provided for Ritter on the night he died in 2003.

The jury found that in the case of Lotysch, the radiologist did his duty, detecting signs of heart disease and advising Ritter to follow up with a doctor.

The Ritters had alleged the radiologist failed to detect an enlarged aorta. On the stand, Lotysch said there was nothing to detect—the scan didn't show Ritter had one.

Ritter, the amiable, prime-time fixture of Three's Company and much more, died of a torn aorta at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California, on Sept. 11, 2003, just hours after falling ill across the street on the set of his sitcom, 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. He was 54.

In closing arguments Wednesday, Moses Lebovits, another attorney for the Ritters, summed up the case as being about "the reality that John Ritter did not have to die."

Lee's side countered that there was nothing the cardiologist, or anyone, could have done to prevent Ritter's death.

The Ritter family had targeted Lee for allegedly mistreating Ritter for a heart attack. Lee's attorney, John McCurdy, argued that by the time the cardiologist came into the picture, the diagnosis had already been made, and Ritter was already "crashing."

The trial, which began last month, featured several witnesses whose faces would have been familiar to channel surfers, including Happy Days alum Henry Winkler, who was on Ritter's set the day the actor died; Married...With Children vet Katey Sagal, who played Ritter's wife on 8 Simple Rules...; former Joan of Arcadia star Jason Ritter, who is Ritter's eldest child; and Yasbeck herself, who costarred with Ritter in the Problem Child movies.

The Ritter family previously won $14 million in settlements stemming from Ritter's death, including $9 million from Providence Saint Joseph.

The $67 million claim centered on the Ritters' contention that the doctors' missteps had deprived a family of a central loved one and a top wage earner. On the stand, Ritter's agent, Jessica Pilch-Samuel, said the actor was headed for an 8 Simple Rules... payday of at least $350,000 per episode.