A landmark legal ruling today opened the way to millions of euros in compensation for women who were fitted with defective French-made breast implants. A commercial court in Toulon ruled that a German safety company which certified the sub-standard silicone implants shared responsibility with PIP, the now-bankrupt French company which made them.
Over 1,600 women, including about 100 from Britain, were awarded €3,000 in interim damages by the French court. The ruling could make TÜV Rheinland – a market leader in safety standards – liable to pay compensation to up to 400,000 women around the world.
The German company is to appeal. If it fails, it will face a further hearing in Toulon next year to examine the full claim for €16,000 each made by 1,672 women from Britain, France and South America. The French lawyer who brought the case, Laurent Gaudon, said tonight that he now expected many other women to join the suit.
This could, in theory, open TÜV to damages of over €6bn. The ruling had been anxiously awaited by Poly Implant Prothèse (PIP) victims in Britain and elsewhere. The bankruptcy of the French company, and its founder Jean-Claude Mas, made compensation from any other source unlikely.
Jan Spivey, spokeswoman for the British plaintiffs and the PIP Action Campaign group, said tonight: “I am delighted. It is a first important victory for PIP victims worldwide and especially those British victims who have received no help from the health service or the Government. It means that they can start to get the surgical help [to replace defective implants] that they urgently need.”
Judgment in a separate criminal action in France against Mr Mas and four colleagues for “aggravated fraud” is expected on 10 December. In the trial earlier this year, they were accused of substituting a low grade of industrial silicone for the approved type in order to reduce costs.
Up to a quarter of the PIP implants burst or leaked, according to a French study. Allegations that the leaking silicone caused cancer or other medical complications have yet to be proved but defence lawyers say that the full effects may not be known for many years.
The French government has offered to pay to replace all PIP implants. The British government has offered to pay only for those originally fitted for medical reasons.
The Cologne-based TÜV, which employs 16,000 people worldwide, is a world leader in safety standards in the health, aviation, railway, engineering and toy-manufacturing industries. It was responsible for 17 years for issuing safety certificates which allowed the Toulon-based PIP to stamp its products with a European safety label.
TÜV claims that it was itself a victim of fraud and a cover-up by the French company. Mr Gaudon claimed during hearings in the Toulon court that the German company failed to do its job properly.
“TÜV gave global credibility to products which did not deserve it,” he said. “To market its products, PIP needed an EU label. It had to be audited every year by an authorised organisation like TÜV to guarantee that its implants conformed to European standards. TÜV did not carry out these checks with the thoroughness which we have a right to expect from a world leader.”
Lawyers for TÜV said they were expected only to check PIP’s paperwork – not the contents of the implants themselves.
Mr Gaudon said last night that the €3,000 in interim compensation should be paid within days to the 1,672 women who joined his suit. A further hearing next year will decide on their claim for €16,000 each for damages. The Toulon court will also rule on a claim for €28m in compensation brought by Bulgarian, Brazilian, Italian, Syrian, Mexican and Romanian distributors of the implants.