By Tully Bates
A ruling by a United States judge has put an end to a 15-year fight against breast implant manufacturers in the United States. The class-action lawsuit has resulted in the biggest product liability settlement in US history. Sixty companies, including Dow Corning, Baxter International Inc and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co, will pay out $5.72 billion to women suffering from ailments caused by the silicone breast implants.
The procedure was touted by doctors as a totally safe, last-a-lifetime procedure. Women who had mastectomies were even advised by their doctors to have implants. Very few women were told of any risks. Women are now dying of diseases such as lupus and scleroderma, a progressive disease which affects the skin's connective tissue as well as internal organs. In the US, by June 1994, 70 women had died as a result of silicone implants.
All breast implants are liquid held within a silicone envelope. All bleed through the envelope, and many of them rupture. Although there was clear evidence in the early '70s that the implants were not safe, they were not completely banned in the US until 1992 and in Australia until 1995.
At the beginning of 1995, a 10-year-old in the US was diagnosed with the same chronic implant-related illness which his mother had contracted. He had received the gel through her milk and through the placenta.
The medical profession was initially reluctant to recognise any connection between implants and diseases. Cheryl Peters from ISNV (Implant Support Network Victoria) says that many women have trouble accessing their medical files, which are needed for any legal proceedings. Women who may be on sickness benefits can be charged $100-$180 per page for their own records.
Implants are a billion dollar industry. In Australia 150,000 women are officially estimated to have breast implants. However, Peters believes this to be a very conservative estimate. Of the million people who have implants of some sort, she believes that the majority are breast implants.
The US judge ruled that because women in Australia and Canada have initiated legal proceedings in their own countries, the total compensation available to foreign women is restricted to $129 million over a 30-year period, 3% of the pay-out. Some lawyers have estimated that the pay-out for Australian women could be as little as $5000; US women will receive between $140,000 and $1.4 million.
Many women are ineligible for the settlement anyway because they have still not been diagnosed as having a silicone-related illness.
The Australian law firm Slater and Gordon is representing many Australian women in this case. Following the US ruling, they have withdrawn about 2400 women from the global settlement and have lodged individual claims through the US courts.
Currently ISNV is trying to overturn the restriction that the women can take legal action only for six years after the implant. This would mean that women affected would be able to take action against their doctors and hospitals for destroying files crucial to their cases. [ISNV can be contacted on (03) 646 7076.]