ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In one set of cases, patients were told they could alleviate their lower back pain by an injection of untested and unauthorized hot bone cement. In another set, patients agreed to unnecessary implants of pacemakers and other medical devices after being told their conditions were so serious they might die on their way home.
The two sets of medical malpractice cases were the biggest in decades in New Mexico and involved so many alleged victims that lawyers had to turn potential clients away.
Both cases were rooted in southern New Mexico. Both involved smaller hospitals that allegedly allowed rogue doctors to take advantage of unwitting patients. Both included major out-of-state corporations as defendants.
While the lawsuits involving an Alamogordo pain specialist who performed unorthodox spine treatments that harmed dozens of patients continue to drag on in the courts, the other litigation against a Las Cruces cardiologist accused of implanting unnecessary pacemakers in patients drew to a close in 2016 with a series of secret settlements worth millions of dollars.
The amount each of the 35 plaintiffs treated by osteopathic cardiologist Demosthenis Klonis received is confidential. But an Oct. 18 court filing suggests the team of plaintiffs’ attorneys received more than $10 million. Klonis no longer practices in New Mexico.
The former patients sued Klonis, two Las Cruces hospitals and the American subsidiary of the German medical device manufacturing company Biotronik Inc., beginning in 2010. Klonis was accused of persuading patients to undergo implants of Biotronik devices, including pacemakers, partly by telling patients they would die if they didn’t have an immediate surgical implantation of a pacemaker or defibrillator. Most patients went forward without getting a second opinion after Klonis told them they needed to first sign an acknowledgment that they might die on the way home, court records say. Other evidence showed that the documentation of patient pacemaker results, called interrogations, were destroyed by a Biotronik representative.
The defendants denied any wrongdoing.
The first and only pacemaker lawsuit to go to jury trial ended with a $67 million verdict in state District Court in favor of former patient Tommy Sowards in September 2014.
The award was later reduced by the trial judge to $25 million. But Biotronik didn’t appeal, and ultimately entered negotiations to settle the case, as did Klonis and the two hospitals where Klonis practiced – Mountain View Hospital and Memorial Hospital, both in Las Cruces.
“The defendants all took that (original $67 million jury verdict) to heart,” said plaintiffs’ attorney James Bromberg. “And they decided to settle (the other 34 lawsuits) in the face of very strong violations of medical standards and ethical obligations … toward their patients.”
About one-quarter of the former patients had their unnecessary devices removed, he said, but some had “grown pacemaker-dependent.” Others had the devices simply turned off. For some, removal of the equipment was considered potentially dangerous.