Founder of PIP implants arrested in Marseilles

Fri, Jan 27, 2012, 00:00

MARSEILLES – The Frenchman who sparked a global health scare by selling substandard breast implants has been arrested as Marseilles prosecutors build a case against him for manslaughter.

In the first arrests since the two-year-old scandal made headlines worldwide in December, Jean-Claude Mas (72) and a second executive at his now-defunct company, Poly Implant Prothese (PIP), were arrested at their homes in southern France shortly after dawn yesterday.

The detention could lead within hours to Mr Mas being placed under formal investigation on suspicion of manslaughter and causing bodily harm. That could in due course lead to criminal charges, which would carry longer sentences than those he now faces in a fraud case expected to be tried around October.

Women who have been campaigning against PIP since French authorities banned its products nearly two years ago welcomed the move as giving them a sense that the law was now in action:

“It’s been too long,” said Murielle Ajellio, who heads an association for women with implants. Up to now, she said, “you feel like you’re fighting against the wind”.

French authorities have been criticised for being slow to react to a case that has sown fear among tens of thousands of women who carry PIP implants.

Only last month though officials in Paris recommend their surgical removal, drawing attention to the problem for patients worldwide who had been fitted with products from the company, which was at one time the third biggest global supplier.

Lawyers for women in France who have filed complaints over PIP implants welcomed the arrests and said there must be no escaping justice for Mr Mas. He has been quoted as deriding those suing him as being motivated only by money.

“This is a comfort for the victims,” said Laurent Gaudon, whose clients are pursuing PIP and surgeons who used its implants for fraud. “It’s the feeling that justice is advancing and they have not been forgotten. It’s the assurance that the guilty are at last going to be held accountable.”

Philippe Courtois, who represents 1,300 people with PIP implants, said Mr Mas should not be freed pending any trial.

Mr Mas and PIP’s former chief executive Claude Couty were questioned at home, as police conducted searches. They were then moved to police custody in the Mediterranean port city of Marseilles, under the orders of prosecutor Jacques Dallest.

PIP enjoyed years of success with international sales, but behind the scenes, employees, and Mr Mas himself, have admitted to hiding from certification agencies the fact they were using cheap, industrial silicone, not approved for medical use. PIP was closed down in March 2010 after regulators discovered it was using a non-approved, industrial silicone gel and pulled its implants off the market.

Health authorities in France and elsewhere have stressed that PIP’s products carry no proven link to cancer, but surgeons report that they have abnormally high rupture rates. Responses to the problem have varied among different foreign authorities.

The arrests follow an investigation opened in Marseilles, close to PIP’s former premises, on December 8th after the death from cancer in 2010 of a woman with PIP implants. Mr Mas and Mr Couty can be held for up to 48 hours.

A trial date could be years away, given the extent of inquiry required, but the graver manslaughter case could make it harder for Mr Mas to avoid appearing in court later this year on other charges of fraud and deception

That latter case targets half a dozen former PIP executives and could also carry prison terms for them of several years. It has dragged on as investigators have had to question up to 2,700 women who have filed complaints over PIP implants.

Earlier in January, leaks from a police document showed Mr Mas admitting to lying about the quality of PIP implants and describing the women filing complaints against him as just seeking money.

The comments sparked public anger against him.

Last month, the French government advised women with PIP implants to have them removed, saying it would pay for the operations in France, sparking alarm around the world.

France has called for tighter EU regulations on medical devices in the wake of the PIP affair, saying suppliers of prosthetics should require the same sort of authorisation as manufacturers of prescription medicines. – (Reuters)