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Ritter Case: They Just Lost Less

Segal, Jeffrey MD

doi: 10.1097/01.EEM.0000319583.61923.2f
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Rare is the person who has not heard of the late John Ritter, an actor who is best remembered for co-starring with Suzanne Somers and Joyce DeWitt in “Three's Company,” a sitcom in the 1970s and 1980s.

Dr. Segal is a board certified neurosurgeon and the founder and CEO of Medical Justice Services, Inc. He may be reached through www.MedicalJustice.com.

Mr. Ritter was working on the set of another sitcom, “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter,” in September 2003 when he became acutely ill and was rushed to an emergency department. The working diagnosis was myocardial infarction. Sadly, he had an aortic dissection and died. Mr. Ritter's wife settled a wrongful death suit with a number of defendants, including the hospital where he was treated, for $14 million.

The trial went forward for the two remaining defendants, radiologist Matthew Lotysch, MD, and cardiologist Joseph Lee, MD. In March, a jury found the two were not negligent in their treatment of Mr. Ritter. The plaintiffs had asked for $67 million in damages. Let me repeat that: $67 million.

Their attorney said the family wanted that figure so they could use the proceeds from the lawsuit to educate the public about aortic dissection disease. There was no mention if they intended to use the full $67 million for the useful goal of education, or if the lawyers wanted to use two-thirds of that amount for education and one third, or roughly $22.3 million, for educating themselves about how their homes would look with Bentleys in the driveway or with a new driveway altogether, say, leading up to a new house in Malibu.

The case had little to do with educating people about medicine and more to do with teaching simple mathematics.

The astute reader will quickly connect that Mr. Ritter was an actor who lived in California, and question how that state, the poster child for tort reform, could nourish a lawsuit totaling such a large number. In California, noneconomic damages are capped at $250,000, as they have been for almost 30 years.

Figure. D

Figure. D

Here's how the math works. Mr. Ritter was working on a new TV show, “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.” He was 54 when he died. Had he not died, he presumably would have worked until some reasonable age of retirement. The logic continues he would have made the same money year after year as his current gig. Accordingly, he would have brought home high eight figures. In short, the plaintiff's lawyers argued economic damages (not the noneconomic number often touted in tort reform discussions) as the vehicle to hit the stratospheric target. To deconstruct the number again, that would be about $8 million per rule of dating his teenage daughter.

Let me be clear: I mean no disrespect toward John Ritter. All reports are that he was a good and decent man who cared deeply about his family. His death was clearly a tragedy. And I will not argue whether negligence was committed. Candidly, I haven't a clue.

What I do know is that there is a sizable disconnect here, between what is expected in the case of a high net-worth individual who alleges medical malpractice and what physicians can realistically be expected to pay in damages. Most physicians carry a “mere” $1 million in professional liability coverage, which means that they have to write a sizable check.

Most physicians are flattered if they are among the few to be asked by high-profile politicians, entertainers, sports stars, or billionaires to provide care. But is it possible that such high earners could possibly seek full indemnification for their salaries if something goes wrong? Most physicians never think about it. Maybe they should because the Ritter trial shows us that the legal system actually does allow forcing the physician who commits a wrong to make Tiger Woods, Bono, or Robert DeNiro whole again if negligent care is proven.

The bigger question is this: What effect does this system have on actually providing care? If a doctor paused to reflect that his next move might put him at risk for a $66 million payout ($1 million paid as policy limits by his carrier and the rest from personal funds), he would rationally take a pass. It is the rare physician who has amassed a fraction of such funds, and even if he did, why would he risk everything on a single episode of care?

Fortunately, there is a solution, and it's already in place. Most high earners value their earning capacity and insure against it on their own. They buy disability and life insurance, so that if something untoward does happen, they actually can be made whole. But the law doesn't recognize that solution. The law says you take the plaintiff “as you find him.” So, if you negligently injure a billionaire, bankruptcy might be the only way out.

In the Ritter case, the jury agreed with the defendant physicians and exonerated them of any liability. They were lucky. How lucky? They were able to spend four years with attorneys worrying about their future, including the potential that they would be ordered to pay tens of millions of dollars and be left penniless.

So, they didn't really win. They just lost less.

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Deterring Frivolous Suits

Medical Justice Services, Inc., was founded by Dr. Segal in 2002 to keep physicians from being sued for frivolous reasons. Its coverage pays to file countersuits and counterclaims against those who bring frivolous suits. According to the company, its physicians are sued at a rate of under two percent per year while the general average is about eight to 12 percent. Part of its strategy is to notify plaintiffs of the physician's Medical Justice coverage, emphasizing that Medical Justice will countersue if the case is found to be without merit. Medical Justice currently represents more than 1,600 physician plan members in 47 states.

© 2008 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.