Court: Exec guilty over faulty French implants
MARSEILLE, France (AP) -- A disgraced French businessman was convicted of fraud and sentenced to four years in prison on Tuesday for filling tens of thousands of breast implants with industrial grade silicone. But he left the courthouse freely after lodging an appeal, and thousands of women will have to wait longer to discover if they will receive damages.
The ruling in the criminal case by a court in Marseille, which all the trappings of a class-action lawsuit, ordered up to 40 million euros ($55 million) in damages paid to a fraction of the 125,000 women worldwide who received the implants.
However, that sum for Jean-Claude Mas' company, Poly Implant Prothese, was largely theoretical because it is bankrupt, and because the appeal froze any efforts to find alternate sources. It will be months, if not years, before any women see money many say they need to remove the faulty, leak-prone implants.
In addition to his prison sentence, the French businessman was fined 75,000 euros ($103,000).
His lawyer promised to appeal immediately, and Mas left the courthouse without comment. The appeal freezes the jail term, fine and any damages.
Four managers in the now-defunct Poly Implant Prothese received lesser sentences.
The decision established a complex system of damages for about two-thirds of the 7,100 women who joined the case, with a potential total of 40 million euros ($55 million) to be paid by those convicted. But, like Mas' fine, it was not clear where that money would come from.
"It's a significant amount," Brice Robin, the Marseille prosecutor, said after the decision.
Further complicating any payments, the court also ruled that the German product-testing company TUeV Rheinland, which cleared PIP for certification, was a victim of Mas' deception, which officials said included falsified paperwork and a shadow production line.
A Toulon commercial court last month separately ordered TUeV to pay damages to more than 1,600 women and six distributors for the implants. TUeV denies responsibility and has promised to appeal that ruling, saying it was as deceived as anyone by PIP.
Robin said he had nothing to do with the Toulon decision. "That will have to play out," he said. "It is two interpretations."
The PIP implants were filled with industrial grade silicone - instead of medical grade - and were prone to leak. Some 125,000 women underwent plastic surgery with PIP implants.
Mas has since dissolved the company. Because PIP is bankrupt, the women who joined the complaint against the French company are unlikely to retrieve much compensation from him. But TUeV, a leader in the industry that was charged with checking the quality of the implants, has deep pockets.
"We got sick, and then they told us it's not the silicone's fault. But it was - it was the silicone's fault," said Martine Favret, a Frenchwoman who wore a red brassiere over her white t-shirt as a symbol of what she described as her "revolt."
PIP once claimed its factory in southern France exported to more than 60 countries and was among the world's top implant makers. According to government estimates, more than 42,000 women in Britain received the implants, more than 30,000 in France, 25,000 in Brazil, 16,000 in Venezuela, and 15,000 in Colombia.
Sales of the implants ended in March 2010. After the first reports emerged of implants rupturing, regulators across Europe tightened oversight of medical devices.
Although France has no class-action process like the United States, more than 7,100 women joined the complaint from all over the world. The Marseille court moved the proceedings to a convention center to allow space for the women who traveled to the southern French city, and a multitude of lawyers joined in.
And just like any class-action, those lawyers didn't necessarily agree on strategy or even the desired outcome. Robin, the prosecutor, said one joined in appealing Tuesday's decision.
Favret, like many of the women, called for more oversight of an industry they say could be prone to cutting corners.
"This is more dangerous than a medication that you can just stop taking. We have these inside us. If we want them gone, we have to undergo surgery. We have to stop protecting these giant industries just for cash. Cash is good, but health is better," she said.
Mas acknowledged problems with PIP but said he never intended any harm. Defense lawyer Yves Haddad said the pressure to convict was intense.
"Four years is the maximum allowed by the law," Haddad said outside the courthouse, after promising an appeal. "I fear that the pressure on the court was too great."
Jan Spivey, who received implants after undergoing a mastectomy for breast cancer in 2002, said she was vindicated by Tuesday's ruling. For years, the British woman said, she could not understand why, even with her cancer gone, she was still sick. Then, when the reports about PIP emerged in 2011, she said she knew.
She said the hospital confirmed that her implants were seeping silicone.
"Many, many women are still living with ruptured PIP in Britain, which I think is completely unacceptable," she said. "Women have got to be respected. They should have their dignity, and they should have been treated accordingly from the beginning."
She was taken aback when she learned that Mas would remain free on appeal.
"I thought he was going to be taken away in a vehicle today and we wouldn't see him again," she said.