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Ritter family: 'clearly' malpractice

March 12, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
The doctor who treated John Ritter the night the comedic actor died "clearly" committed malpractice by failing to order a chest X-ray and instead using incorrect treatments that led to his death, an attorney for Ritter's family told jurors Wednesday. Attorneys for the doctors who treated Ritter insisted, however, that the actor's death could not have been prevented, and their clients followed proper medical procedures.

During closing arguments in the trial of the family's $67 million wrongful death suit, family attorney Moses Lebovits accused Dr. Joseph Lee of making several missteps on the night of Sept. 11, 2003, at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, the Burbank hospital the actor was taken to after falling ill on the set of the sit-com "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter."

"This is clearly a case of malpractice," said Lebovits, who represents Ritter's widow Amy Yasbeck; their daughter Stella; and Ritter's children from his first marriage to Nancy Morgan: Carly, Tyler, and 27-year-old Jason.

"Do what you were taught to do ... that's all we can ask," Lebovits said of the doctor. "We don't ask for any heroism."

Ritter, perhaps best known for his starring role in "Three's Company," was taping ABC's "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" when he fell ill. The actor was taken to Providence Saint Joseph's -- across the street from the Burbank studio -- at about 6:10 p.m., complaining of "chest pain and tightness, nausea, vomiting and dizziness," the suit states. He died later that night.

The civil suit was filed Sept. 3, 2004, against Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center, the Burbank Emergency Medical Group and several doctors.

The Glendale Superior Court trial is dealing with the care Ritter received from radiologist Matthew Lotysch -- who interpreted the results of a body scan the actor had on Sept. 18, 2001, when he allegedly failed to detect the actor's enlarged aorta -- and Lee, who treated him the night he died.

"It only takes common sense to know that they should have taken a chest X-ray," Lebovits said. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure that one out."

He also said Lee should have gotten a more complete medical history about Ritter, should have asked about the severity of his chest pain and should have taken blood-pressure readings on both of his arms.

The attorney said Lee wound up using an intra-aortic balloon pump, which he called "absolutely the wrong treatment."

"That's exactly what he did," Lebovits said. "He turned up the pressure and made it (Ritter's heart) blow out. ... He killed a man."

Lebovits claimed Ritter initially was misdiagnosed with an acute myocardial infarction, then misdiagnosed with pericardial tamponade. Ritter actually had a large ascending aortic aneurysm with a severe dissection and died at 10:48 p.m., Lebovits said.

The lawyer also alleges that if proper procedures had been followed to diagnose and treat Ritter's symptoms, he would be alive and well today.

Lawyers for the two doctors insisted, however, that proper procedures were followed.

Stephen Fraser, attorney for Lotysch, accused the plaintiffs' expert witnesses of presenting "flawed science."

He also noted that a chest X-ray had been ordered on Ritter before Lee even arrived at the hospital.

"Dr. Lee had no reason to believe the X-ray hadn't been done," he said. For some reason, that chest X-ray was never completed, he said.

Fraser also took issue with the plaintiffs' attorneys for calling celebrities such as Henry Winkler and Katey Sagal in an effort to win favor with the jury.

"This is a show business case in many respects," Fraser said. "You know darn well why Henry Winkler was the first witness they called."

At the end of his closing argument, Fraser asked the jury to "imagine if all the resources that were expended in this trial were spent on trying to cure aortic disease. A lot of good could have been done."

He went on to say that he didn't think John Ritter would have been proud of some of the things that had been said and done in the courtroom -- a statement that drew an objection from Lebovits.

Outside court, Fraser told reporters that Ritter had a rare condition that was going to be fatal "no matter what anybody did."

"The reality is Mr. Ritter had an extraordinarily rare presentation of a very rare disease and there was nothing that could have been done differently," he said.

He also said the amount of money being sought by the family would be "catastrophic" for the doctors.

"It would ruin these doctors' lives," he said.

Jurors are set to begin deliberations at 9:30 a.m. Thursday.

The family has already received more than $14 million in settlements, including $9.4 million from the hospital where Ritter died, according to the Los Angeles Times.

 

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