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Jury awards Las Cruces couple $67 million for disputed pacemaker implant

By James Staley

LAS CRUCES >> A jury Monday awarded a Las Cruces couple nearly $70 million in damages after finding that a German company and one of its salesmen conspired to unnecessarily implant a pacemaker in 2007, marking the end of a lengthy civil trial.

The jury determined that Biotronik, an international biomedical firm, and its salesman, Edward Tague, were negligent in 65-year-old Tommy Sowards receiving a pacemaker in 2007. Jurors also found that Biotronik and Tague acted with indifference to Sowards' safety.

As a result, the jury awarded Sowards and his wife, Barbara, more than $67.2 million. Most of that total, $65 million, came in the form of punitive damages. The Sowards received more than $2.3 million in compensatory and loss of consortium damages.

"It's been a long, hard battle for me," Tommy Sowards said as he left 3rd Judicial District Court in Las Cruces on Monday evening.

One of the attorneys representing the Sowards, Kathy Love of Albuquerque, said the case likely would continue. She expects attorneys for Biotronik and Tague to file appeals and motions to reduce the amount of punitive damages.

"The jury has sent a message to Biotronik to pack their bags," Love said after the proceeding. " ... You can make money here, but not at the expense of people's safety."

One of Biotronik's attorneys, Joseph Cervantes, referred all questions to the company's lead counsel, William F. Gould of Washington, D.C. Gould did not return a phone message seeking comment. Cervantes is also a state senator.

Benjamin Silva, one of the attorney's representing Tague, declined to comment, saying he first needed to discuss matters with his client.

Love said there are 30 similar cases that have yet to go to trial in northern New Mexico. Some of the people who filed those suits watched Monday's proceedings.

In 2007, Tommy Sowards checked in to MountainView Regional Medical Center for chest pain, according to the lawsuit.

Days later, Dr. Demothenis Klonis and other MountainView staff conducted "numerous unnecessary medical procedures," including the implant of an $8,000 pacemaker manufactured by Biotronik, the suit states.

MountainView billed Tommy Sowards more than $20,000 for the pacemaker, which Klonis said was necessary due to a specific medical condition he diagnosed. But, according to the complaint, Klonis has repeatedly refused to turn over records to substantiate that diagnosis.

The Sowards' attorneys contend that Klonis and Biotronik representative Tague, lost or destroyed the records.

The Sowards' lawsuit also alleges that Biotronik encouraged Klonis to implant more pacemakers and other medical devices.

Klonis and MountainView Regional Medical Center were no longer part of the suit once it went to trial. Klonis took his practice to Santa Fe in 2010, the complaint states.

District Judge Douglas R. Driggers, who presided over the case, said the three-week trial was the longest jury trial in his 11 years on the bench at 3rd Judicial District Court. Driggers, a former district attorney, estimated it was the court's longest case in 30 years.

The jury was composed of six men and six women.

Moments after Driggers announced the verdict, Barbara Sowards blotted her eyes with a tissue, the only reaction the couple showed.

Tommy Sowards said he and his wife left Detroit in 2005 because of her health. They chose Las Cruces, he said, because of the friendly people.

Said Sowards: "They confirmed my faith in them."

James Staley can be reached at 575-541-5476.

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