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David Lowe
David Lowe
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Ritter Lawsuit Demonstrates How Medical Malpractice Caps Discriminate On Basis Of Wealth

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After a month long trial, John Ritter’s doctors were found not liable by a California jury for medical malpractice in the actor’s death in 2003. The lawsuit alleged that a cardiologist misdiagnosed an aortic dissection as a heart attack, and that a radiologist failed to perform an x-ray that might have revealed the dissection, thus causing Ritter to lose the chance for surgery that might have saved his life.

A recent New York Times Magazine article by Lisa Sanders describes the challenge of making the diagnosis of aortic dissection, calling it “one of the classic difficult diagnoses in medicine. Far too often it’s not even considered.”

A Los Angeles Times story about the trial’s outcome makes the point that medical malpractice caps discriminate on the basis of wealth: “The case highlighted the high stakes in malpractice cases where the alleged victim is wealthy: Attorney’s for Ritter’s family contended that with a new hit show, the veteran actor best known for his role as Jack Tripper on “Three’s Company” could have gone on to earn an additional $67 million had he lived.”

The family has already received more than $14 million in settlements form the hospital and eight others relating to the malpractice claim. The family was seeking more than $67 million from the remaining defendants. Whether they would have received this exact figure if they had won the case we will never know. But the family certainly would have received a large award because Ritter had a track record as a successful actor, and was in the starring role of the first season of new TV series entitled “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.”

We regularly review cases in which there is merit to the claim of medical malpractice, but statutory caps on the amount a family can recover preclude pursuing the case because the victim was either retired, in a low paying job, or unemployed. Typically, there is either no cap or a high cap for loss of income, but unfairly low limits for loss of companionship. The expense of devloping the case may approach the maximum a victim’s survivors may recover for the loss of companionship, making the cases uneconomical to pursue. Of course, that is the reason that the health care industry and its insurers urge the adoption of caps. If it were not for the potential of a large verdict for loss of future income, the Ritter family may not have received the settlements they already obtained, and may not have secured the excellent legal team that fought so hard for them. Caps on the recover of damages for medical malpractice result in this kind of inequity.