Is $4.75 billion enough? breast implant plaintiffs ask

April 16, 1994|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,States News Service

Barbara Trahan knew something was wrong when she could no longer lift a patient off a hospital bed, open a suture or sterilize a scalpel. For months, her pain and fatigue were a mystery, until she started hearing the stories of other women with similar symptoms.

The women all had one thing in common: They had received silicone breast implants.

Now a group of breast-implant manufacturers is on the verge of offering a $4.75 billion settlement to victims of leaky implants. A federal judge in Alabama gave preliminary approval to the settlement earlier this month.

But Ms. Trahan and some other Maryland women are not interested.

Ms. Trahan, a nurse in Baltimore, accuses breast-implant manufacturers of failing to deal in good faith in the past, and wonders whether the settlement will be big enough to satisfy the demand for repayment. To safeguard her claim, she plans to pursue her own lawsuit individually.

"I feel I have some very serious damages, and I don't want to be part of a class-action suit," said Ms. Trahan, 47, who left her job as her symptoms worsened.

"I'm seeking to be back where I was before, without worrying about being financially independent, without fear of losing my job."

Ms. Trahan blames the silicone for a series of ailments, ranging from painful arthritis to chronic fatigue to unexplained cysts. Doctors removed both implants from her body, along with a piece of her breast.

Before the silicone pouches were implanted, Ms. Trahan said, she was told they would do nothing more than improve her figure. She said no one warned her that they might leak.

"I was told I could have all my ribs broken in an automobile accident, and the implants would still be intact," she said.

One of the nation's largest makers of silicone breast implants, Dow Corning Corp., recently agreed to contribute about $2 billion to the deal.

The agreement -- also backed by Bristol Myers-Squibb Co. and Baxter Healthcare Corp. -- is in response to more than 9,000 lawsuits filed against implant manufacturers.

Final approval of the giant class-action suit is expected in August. It could be the largest product-liability settlement in U.S. history.

Lawyers say the settlement could result in individual rewards ranging from $200,000 to $2 million for implant recipients who suffer from immune system problems, neurological disorders and other ailments. The settlement creates a pool of money designed to resolve claims for the next 30 years.

Under the settlement, claimants' doctors must fit them into a "grid" to determine the size of their awards. The longer the women have been sick, and the more severe their symptoms, the larger the individual settlement.

Implant recipients must submit their applications, along with their medical records, to an independent claims administrator by Sept. 16.

Should the pool of money be insufficient to satisfy all the claims, settlement negotiators say, they will go back to the breast-implant manufacturers to ask for more money. Negotiators believe the companies would comply to avoid further costly court battles.

Some women are skeptical.

One implant recipient, Lucille Bodtke of Glen Burnie, is waiting for more information. But she said she fears that the fund will run dry too quickly, given the anticipated demand.

And, she contends, any woman who does not settle immediately could risk losing compensation altogether.

"That isn't right, because these companies will remain in business, continuing to make huge profits," Ms. Bodtke said.

Patricia Tasher, a Baltimore lawyer who represents nearly 120 women with breast-implant claims, said the settlement could create a stampede for compensation.

In the past two weeks, scores of women have called for more information, and Ms. Tasher worries that they are getting false hopes.

"What if thousands and thousands of women apply and there's not enough money?" she asked. Medical problems associated with the implants vary widely, she said, adding that women who are seriously ill are more likely to reject the settlement in favor of individual lawsuits.

But breast-implant manufacturers argue that women should settle now before losing even more money in lengthy legal fights -- disputes that they say women cannot win.

"It's a gamble, going into a courtroom," said Christy Meter, a spokeswoman for Dow Corning.

"As new, more rigorous science emerges, it points more convincingly to a lack of cause and effect between breast implants and disease."

Implant manufacturers point to studies showing an inconclusive link between silicone and medical problems, including research by the Johns Hopkins University, the Mayo Clinic and other medical institutions.

The silicone implants were placed on the market before the Food and Drug Administration began studying implant devices.

Although the agency never granted approval, it did not block the implants' sale for cosmetic purposes until 1992. To date, the FDA has found no evidence linking the implants to health problems.

For many women, anger over the risks posed by the implants does not begin and end with the manufacturers.

The federal government, they argue, is also to blame for failing to ban the silicone implants at the outset.

"I cannot ever be able to understand how the government could allow something to be surgically placed inside our bodies without intense scrutiny and observation," said Tammy Callas, a Laurel woman who is considering opting for the settlement. "This is where my anger boils."

Doctors removed Ms. Callas's leaking implants, and later took out both ovaries and her uterus, which were riddled with noncancerous cysts.

Now she is not shy about demanding full compensation.

"I am willing to be fair about a settlement, but I didn't expect for my life to be ruined," she said.

Anyone who wants to receive information about the settlement can call 1-800-887-6828.

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