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Jury awards $67 million to pacemaker patient

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

LAS CRUCES - A jury has awarded a pacemaker patient more than $67 million in damages in a lawsuit in which he accused the device manufacturer, its salesman, a Las Cruces doctor and a Las Cruces hospital of a pay-to-play scheme, according to an attorney in the case.

The District Court jury on Monday found German pacemaker manufacturer Biotronik negligent in the case of Tommy Sowards, who claimed he was unnecessarily implanted with a pacemaker as a result of a conspiracy among the company, salesman Edward Tague, Mountain View Regional Medical Center and Sowards' then-doctor, Demosthenis Klonis.

In undisclosed settlements, the hospital resolved the claims against it earlier this year and Klonis resolved the claims against him last fall.

Monday's verdict found Biotronik and Tague jointly liable.

The jury awarded $2.3 million in compensatory damages and $65 million in punitive damages - about half of what Sowards' attorneys were asking for. "This jury's verdict is really important to protecting patient safety in this community," said Kathy Love, an Albuquerque attorney representing Tommy Sowards and his wife, Barbara, also a plaintiff in the case. "I think it sends a strong message to Biotronik that the citizens of New Mexico are not going to put up with this kind of behavior."

That behavior allegedly included Biotronik paying improper kickbacks to Klonis such as bonuses for every patient outfitted with a pacemaker, training fees and payments for clinical studies - payouts that more than tripled the $1,223 the doctor charged per procedure.

Similar complaints against Biotronik by at least 30 other plaintiffs are pending in Santa Fe.

"This is just one chapter in a very long book," Love said.

Biotronik attorney Joseph Cervantes, also a New Mexico state senator, did not immediately respond to an interview request.

Sowards underwent pacemaker surgery in January 2007 after a more than two-week hospital stay for heart trouble. Klonis prescribed several drugs and procedures, including a Biotronik pacemaker.

In the lawsuit, Sowards said subsequent doctors informed him that the pacemaker wasn't necessary. It is now turned off, but his attorney told jurors that his current physician says it cannot be removed without causing damage.

"Today's verdict means a lot to me," he said in a telephone interview, adding that during the trial "it took everything I had to hold myself together."

"I'm hoping that with me winning this case, that it makes it easier for the others in Santa Fe to win their cases," he said.

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