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Jury clears Ritter's doctors of negligence

March 14, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
A jury cleared a cardiologist and a radiologist Friday of negligence in the diagnosis and treatment of actor John Ritter, who died of a torn aorta in 2003.The lawsuit was brought by Ritter's widow and children. The 9-3 verdict means there is no damage judgment against the doctors.

Radiologist Matthew 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.

The cardiologist cleared, Dr. Joseph Lee, was summoned to treat Ritter at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with a heart attack.

During the trial, attorneys for the family 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.

"There was no wavering involved. We felt very strongly that neither Dr. Lotysch or Dr. Lee had done anything wrong in this case," said Adriana Goad, president juror.

Jurors say their vote hinged on when Dr. Joseph Lee arrived at the hospital to treat John Ritter. Lee had been accused of failing to get an X-ray, then mistaking a rupturing aorta for a routine heart attack. Records shown Lee got to Ritter's bedside after symptoms of a heart attack were clear.

"At that point his vital signs and important things were already dropping and not looking good. He did not have a lot of time and had to make a quick decision and that was the turning point," said Bill Boller, a juror.

Radiologist Matthew Lotysch was also cleared. He gave Ritter a body scan two years earlier. Jurors say that they took only 15 minutes to find that he had given Ritter ample warning of his heart condition. It was Ritter who did not follow up.

"The deciding factor was that he did give sufficient information and advice to John Ritter on what to do next. We were convinced that he did his job. It was up to the patient then to go to a physician or a cardiologist to take care of himself. We need to take responsibility for our care," said Ann Sood, a juror.

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

Lawyers for Ritter's widow, Amy Yasbeck, and children claimed Ritter's death resulted in a loss of as much as $67 million in future earnings. Eight other medical personnel and the hospital previously made settlements with the family totaling $14 million.

Yasbeck's attorneys pointed to one positive note Friday afternoon.

"We have done an extrordiary amount of in educating the public about aortic disease and the risk of death against aortic disease and aortic dissection," said Moses Lebovits, Ritter family attorney.

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

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.

The family's attorney, Michael Plonsker, stood by the wrongful death lawsuit's claims.

"We are still convinced these doctors did something inappropriate but the jury system worked," he said.

 

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