Opening statements begin in Ritter lawsuit


GLENDALE, Calif. -- A lawyer representing John Ritter's family told a jury Monday he would show that 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 in the Glendale branch of the Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Ritter died from a tear in the aorta, known as an aortic dissection, on Sept. 11, 2003, at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank.

Ritter's family says he was instead 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, was tearful 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.

"He did absolutely nothing to rule out the existence of an aortic dissection," the attorney said.

Had Ritter been treated properly, Lebovits said, the actor would have undergone surgery that night, would have recovered in six-to-eight weeks, and his life expectancy would not have been affected.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he told jurors, "the family lost a wonderful man. Mr. Ritter was an extraordinary father."

At that point, Yasbeck closed her eyes and wiped away tears.

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.

Fraser said that nothing could have been done to prevent Ritter's demise because the body scans showed his aorta was of normal size and there was no sign that it would dissect.

"Dr. Lee did not save John Ritter's life but he did not kill him," Fraser said of the cardiologist co-defendant. "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, and at the point Lee entered the case it appeared that was what was happening to Ritter.

Lee's attorney, John McCurdy, said Ritter had symptoms of a heart attack and that he actually did die of a heart attack caused by a dissecting aorta.

He said by the time Lee arrived, there had been a "code AMI," meaning that 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 seven seasons and made millions.

"If John was still alive, the show would still be on the air," Plonsker said.

The show first aired 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 how long it would have lasted and how much money Ritter would have earned.

He said the huge amount of money being sought was out of proportion with reality.

Actor Henry Winkler came to court to testify Monday but he as defense opening statements went into the late afternoon. He was to return Wednesday, when the trial resumes.