Earlier this year, the AMA proclaimed the breast-implant controversy overblown hysteria. A report published in the AMA's journal claims in part: "The anxiety over breast implants is not warranted based on current scientific evidence. . . . No clinical data are available that definitively prove that an increased incidence of breast cancer or any other type of cancer is associated with silicone-gel breast implants."

Few, if any, at the seminar give credence to the AMA's conclusions. That goes double for the women who are ill: In their hearts--and now in the minds of many of their doctors--they are convinced their breast implants are to blame.

Proving the pivotal link to juries is the job of plaintiffs' attorneys such as Sal Liccardo. He has to catch a plane soon after his presentation. But he doesn't get away so easily. A blond woman in her late 20s rushes up to Liccardo in the lobby.

"I came to this because I'm really having physical problems and I think it's because of these," she says skittishly, pointing to her breasts.

Liccardo nods politely, as the woman continues, rapid-fire.
"The doctors can't tell me anything and I'm sick and I just don't get any better and I don't know if I should get them out and if I should get a lawyer or what I should do. The only thing different in my life is the implants. I used to love them. Now I think I'm going crazy."
Liccardo waits until the woman comes up for air, then addresses her calmly and directly.

"Listen, there's lots of ways to go here," he says. "I hope you get to talk with as many people at this seminar as you can--other women, attorneys, doctors. There are lots of women in your shoes--that's what this is all about. You're not crazy."
Liccardo really has to go now, and he excuses himself.
The woman walks quickly to a nearby pay phone and punches in a number.

"I just talked to a big-time lawyer," she tells the party on the other end, "and he tells me there's lots of girls in the same boat as me. Yes, really!"

"I have watched my wife go from a very active person to one who is in constant pain from her joints, fatigue, hair loss and rashes, etc. . . . There is no way these companies should get away with what they did to women. They have lied, they have covered up the problems that they knew existed with implants as far back as 20 years ago."
--From the bulletin board

On March 23, attorneys who had been negotiating at an Alabama yacht club announced a proposed settlement of the so-called "global" breast-implant lawsuit.

Three companies--Dow Corning, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Baxter Healthcare Company--tentatively agreed to pay $3.7 billion over 30 years to women who claim injuries caused by silicone-gel breast implants. Attorneys for both sides agree the settlement is not as devastating to the implant manufacturers as it may appear at first blush. The firms will not have to admit wrongdoing, just pay money.

The highly complex settlement also would eliminate the defendants' mammoth legal fees, and opposing litigants agree the companies may actually parlay the settlement into tax breaks that will further reduce their liability.

Despite news stories to the contrary, the deal isn't set in stone. It must first pass muster with the firms' boards of directors, and then with a federal judge overseeing the matter from Alabama.

But if it holds together, as expected, the settlement will mark the largest such payout in the nation's history. Even if that happens, however, it's unlikely any of the women would receive a penny for years because of the settlement's proposed structure. And the hundreds of attorneys involved likely would receive 25 percent of the settlement, leaving less than $3 billion to be divided among the women. The ramifications have been the subject of spirited debate among the brigade of barristers and their clients. Some key questions:

Should a woman whose medical problems may be related to her implants become part of a settlement in which the maximum award to an individual would be $2 million--and in which the vast majority would receive far less than that? Or should she risk an individual lawsuit with no guarantee of collecting a cent?

Women of all stripes now have even more reason to take stock of their legal choices. Last month, women plaintiffs at two federal trials in Houston won stunning victories in silicone-gel breast-implant cases. In one of the cases, a jury awarded three women with immune and nervous-system illnesses $33.5 million in damages after a bitterly fought trial.

Their attorneys claimed faulty breast implants manufactured by the 3M Corporation and two other companies had caused the serious illnesses: immune-system lupus in one woman and a degenerative nerve disease called neuropathy in the other two.

In a second verdict, a jury imposed a $12.9 million judgment in favor of three other Texas women, also against 3M and two other onetime silicone-gel manufacturers. The panel determined that leaking implants had led to severe illnesses and that the firms had engaged in a "civil conspiracy" to avoid responsibility for their products' failures. The Houston area is noted for its large plaintiff verdicts. Still, the whopping wins have forced many women to reconsider the advantages of "opting out" of the proposed March 23 settlement, if and when the time comes.

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