"The doctors told it to me like I was 5 and I told it to her like she was 5," Yasbeck said in an interview with The Times. "The truth is, it's a lot more complicated and it's a lot more sad."
Early next month, in response to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Yasbeck and Ritter's four children, a Los Angeles County jury will be asked to decide: Did Ritter have to die?
Lawyers for the plaintiffs fault the care Ritter, 54, received from two doctors -- one who interpreted the results of a body scan he had in 2001, the other who treated him the night he died.
Defense attorneys say their clients did nothing wrong and that Ritter would have died no matter what doctors did.
The trial will feature high-stakes legal questions, celebrity cameos and dueling medical opinions by researchers who have written books on the arterial condition that killed Ritter.
Besides the medical issues, the proceeding probably will delve into sensitive areas for Hollywood bosses: how much successful television stars are worth and how that question is settled in contract negotiations.
It also will highlight how differently malpractice lawsuits play out when the alleged victim is wealthy. Ritter, best known for his starring role as Jack Tripper on "Three's Company," was an actor with tremendous earning potential, the plaintiffs' lawyers say. Because of his subsequent success on the series "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter," his family is asking for more than $67 million in damages -- a stratospheric sum compared with most such claims.
The family already has received more than $14 million in settlements, according to court records, including $9.4 million from Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, where he died.
No one disputes that doctors at St. Joseph treated Ritter as if he were having a heart attack. Both sides agree that his true condition -- an aortic dissection, which is a tear in the largest blood vessel in the body -- was not identified until right before his death.
Lawyers for the two remaining defendants, radiologist Matthew Lotysch and cardiologist Joseph Lee, say Ritter was doomed by his own biology.
"I really, really believe that for whatever reason, John Ritter's time was up," said Stephen C. Fraser, who represents Lotysch.
Yasbeck, Ritter's second wife, who married him in 1999, said the doctors missed signs of her husband's condition until it was too late to save him.
The trial is about more than money, she said. As is typical, none of the hospitals, doctors or other entities that have settled with the family have admitted guilt or said they were sorry. Yasbeck said she wants a public accounting of what happened.
"You can't treat my kid's dad for something and kill him in the process," she said.
"I think the money will show how angry the jury will be about what happened to John and what could happen to them."