GLENDALE, Calif. – A lawyer for John Ritter's family told a jury Monday that he would show doctors caused the actor's death by an improper diagnosis and substandard treatment.
"What you'll hear, ladies and gentleman, is that ... they did everything wrong," attorney Moses Lebovits said in his opening statement at the trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Ritter died of a tear in the aorta, known as an aortic dissection, on Sept. 11, 2003, at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank.
Ritter's relatives say he was instead mistakenly treated for a heart attack, and they are suing two doctors for $67 million. The lawsuit follows settlements with the hospital and eight other medical personnel for about $14 million.
At the time of his death, Ritter was 54 and the star of the ABC series "8 Simple Rules ... For Dating My Teenage Daughter." The award-winning star of the sitcom "Three's Company" had a varied career, with credits ranging from TV's "The Waltons" to the 1996 movie "Sling Blade."
Amy Yasbeck, Ritter's widow, wept during parts of Lebovits' opening statement.
Lebovits claimed that a radiologist, Dr. Matthew Lotysch, failed to give Ritter warning of his purportedly enlarged aorta two years before he died, and that Dr. Joseph Lee, the cardiologist called to Ritter's side the night of his death, failed to order the proper tests to diagnose his condition.
Central to the case is the claim that Lee failed to have a chest X-ray done before treating Ritter for what appeared to be a heart attack.
"Because they didn't get the chest X-ray, they gave him the wrong treatment," said Lebovits.
Had Ritter been treated properly, Lebovits said, the actor would have undergone surgery that night and recovered in six to eight weeks, and his life expectancy would not have been affected.
In a defense opening statement, attorney Stephen Fraser, who represents Lotysch, told jurors that neither of the doctors being sued was responsible for Ritter's death.
Nothing could have been done to prevent Ritter's demise because body scans showed his aorta was of normal size and showed no sign that it would dissect, Fraser said.
"Dr. Lee did not save John Ritter's life, but he did not kill him," Fraser said. "There was nothing that could have been done to save Mr. Ritter's life."
The defense attorney said Lee did what was required for someone having a heart attack -- which was what appeared to be happening to Ritter when Lee joined the case.
Lee's attorney, John McCurdy, said Ritter had symptoms of a heart attack and did die of a heart attack caused by a dissecting aorta. By the time Lee arrived, there had been a "code AMI," he said, meaning Ritter was having an acute myocardial infarction -- an acute heart attack.
"In that situation, you don't wait around for an X-ray," McCurdy said.
Another Ritter family attorney presented a rosy picture of the actor's prospects to earn millions for the rest of his life, had he survived. Michael Plonsker said ABC and Touchstone Studios executives will testify that Ritter's show probably would have run for seven seasons and made millions.
"If John was still alive, the show would still be on the air," Plonsker said.
The show had its premiere in 2002 and ended in 2005.
Defense attorney Alex Watson told jurors that TV schedules are unpredictable, that Ritter's show had already seen ratings decrease when it was placed opposite Fox's "American Idol" and that it would be speculation to say how long it would have lasted and how much money Ritter would have earned.
The huge amount of money being sought was out of proportion with reality, he said.
Actor Henry Winkler had been expected to testify Monday but left as defense opening statements went late into the afternoon. He was to return Wednesday, when the trial resumes.