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Breast Implant Lawsuits, Part 2?

by Edward J. Kroger, MD, JD on January 27th, 2011

In the 1980s and 1990s, plaintiff attorneys filed a wave of class-action lawsuits alleging that breast implants caused systemic health problems including cancer, autoimmune diseases and neurological problems. A host of medical experts and teams of specialized plaintiff lawyers seized on anecdotal evidence of such disease, resulting in massive indemnity and defense costs for makers of implants, health care institutions and physicians. Dow Corning, for example, which specializes in in silicone technology, was forced into bankruptcy protection for nine years, finally emerging in 2004. Many of the cases were resolved in a multi-billion dollar class action settlement in 1984. Medical research finally caught up with the litigation and a number of large, independent reviews of the literature, including a report by the prestigious U.S. Institute of Medicine, found no link between implants and systemic disease. Litigation evaporated.  The implants, whose use was restricted for more than a decade, were again approved for cosmetic use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2006.

All that may be about ready to change again. Yesterday, the FDA announced a statistically significant link between women with implants and a rare type of breast cancer called anaplastic large cell lymphoma.  Both government officials and implant makers have made statements urging women with implants not to panic, noting the relative rarity of the disease and the fact that it can be treated with implant removal and aggressive lymphoma chemotherapy and radiation. The 5-year survival rate for aggressive lymphomas can range between 30 and 80%.

The data may spur medical researchers to again reevaluate the safety of implants. Plaintiff attorneys may remember the massive sums they recovered 25 years ago.  Risk managers may want to review any exposure their institutions might have to a potential second wave of implant litigation.

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