A French court on Tuesday convicted of fraud the ex-managers of a firm whose faulty breast implants sparked a global health scare and sentenced the company’s founder to four years in jail.
The now-defunct firm, Poly Implant Prothese (PIP), was at the centre of worldwide concern two years ago after it was revealed to have used cheaper industrial-grade silicone in thousands of breast implants sold worldwide.
The court sentenced PIP founder Jean-Claude Mas to four years in prison, fined him 75,000 euros ($103,000) and banned him permanently from working in medical services or running a company.
Mas, a 74-year-old dubbed “the sorcerer’s apprentice of implants” by prosecutors, did not react as the verdict was read out in court.
“I am disappointed but not surprised,” Mas’s lawyer Yves Haddad said, blaming the verdict on “strong pressure” due to the public nature of the scandal and announcing plans to appeal.
Haddad said it was “shocking” that Mas had not been given a suspended sentence as he had no previous criminal record.
Four other former PIP executives were also convicted by the court in Marseille on the charges of aggravated fraud and given lesser sentences.
The scandal first emerged in 2010 after doctors noticed abnormally high rupture rates in PIP implants.
It gathered steam worldwide in 2011, with some 300,000 women in 65 countries believed to have received the faulty implants.
During a month-long trial in April, the defendants admitted to using the industrial silicone but Mas denied the company’s implants posed any health risks.
More than 7,500 women have reported ruptures in the implants and in France alone 15,000 have had the PIP implants replaced.
But health officials in various countries have said they are not toxic and do not increase the risk of breast cancer.
More than 7,000 women had declared themselves civil plaintiffs in the case and several dozen were in court Tuesday for the verdict.
“It is an important symbolic first step — the first time that we can use the word ‘guilty’ for Jean-Claude Mas,” said Alexandra Blachere, the head of an association of women given the implants.
“It is a relief for the victims to be recognised,” said Philippe Courtois, a lawyer for many of them, hailing the court’s “rapid and coherent response”.
Industrial gel saved PIP millions
The court also sentenced PIP’s former general manager Claude Couty to three years in prison, with two years suspended.
Quality control director Hannelore Font and production director Loic Gossart were both sentenced to two years in prison, with one suspended, and research director Thierry Brinon was given an 18-month suspended sentence.
Mas, a one-time travelling salesman who got his start in the medical business by selling pharmaceuticals, founded PIP in 1991 to take advantage of the booming market for cosmetic implants.
He built the company into the third-largest global supplier of implants, but came under the spotlight when plastic surgeons began reporting an unusual number of ruptures in his products.
Health authorities later discovered he was saving millions of euros by using industrial-grade gel in 75 percent of the implants.
Implants must be made from medical grade material that has been approved for use in a human body.
PIP’s implants were banned and the company eventually liquidated.
PIP had exported more than 80 percent of its implants, with about half going to Latin America, about a third to other countries in western Europe, about 10 percent to eastern Europe and the rest to the Middle East and Asia.
Some of the defendants, including Mas, have also been charged in separate and ongoing manslaughter and financial fraud investigations into the scandal.
The manslaughter probe is related to the suspicious 2010 death from cancer of a woman who was fitted with the implants.
German safety standards firm TUV, which approved the implants for market, was last month found liable in the case.
A court in the French city of Toulon ruled that the German firm had “neglected its duties” by failing to properly verify the implants.
The company was ordered to pay more than 50 million euros in compensation to six distributors and to more than 1,600 women fitted with the implants.