2 Doctors Cleared of Negligence in Death of Actor John Ritter

Two doctors were not negligent in the diagnosis and treatment of John Ritter, who died from a torn aorta in 2003, a jury found Friday in a wrongful death lawsuit by the actor's widow and children.

The lawsuit claimed that a radiologist failed to spot a purported enlargement of the aorta in a body scan conducted two years before Ritter's death and that there was malpractice by the cardiologist summoned to treat the actor at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with a heart attack.

The jury voted 9-3 to clear Dr. Joseph Lee, the cardiologist, and Dr. Matthew Lotysch, the radiologist, of the negligence claims.

"It was a very hard decision but we made it," said a woman juror who declined to identify herself. "We agreed that other physicians would have done the same thing and the result would have been the same."

Ritter was 54 when he became ill while working on his hit sitcom "8 Simple Rules ... for Dating My Teenage Daughter" and was taken to the hospital on Sept. 11, 2003.

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. Attorneys said Friday that because Ritter would have had expenses such as paying an agent and staff, they were actually seeking about $43 million in damages for the family.

Eight other medical personnel and the hospital previously made settlements with the family totaling $14 million.

During the trial, the plaintiffs' attorneys 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.

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.

Plaintiffs attorney Michael Plonsker stood by the lawsuit's claims.

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

Among the jury's findings was that Ritter was advised by the radiologist after the body scan to follow up with treatment by a physician and that the actor did not do so.

The radiologist testified he advised Ritter he had calcification in three coronary arteries and should consult other doctors. But the jury also found that Ritter's failure to pursue that medical consultation was not a cause of his death.

A dissenting juror who refused to be identified said she tried to convince others to find the doctors negligent.

She said she was impressed with the testimony of Ritter's widow and adult children, calling it "very poignant."

"What impressed me was very strong testimony that the doctors missed the diagnosis. I felt they should take responsibility."

Fraser said the doctors would have been bankrupted by a verdict of just a few million dollars in damages and he was proud of them for fighting the lawsuit.

"They were the only doctors with the courage to stand up and come to court in a celebrity case," he said.