The trial of the five executives of the now-defunct French company Poly Implant Prothese (PIP) began in a makeshift courtroom in Marseille, southern France, on Wednesday, to accommodate the huge crowds expected to attend the case.
The executives are on trial for supplying hundreds of thousands of women with substandard breast implants and triggering a global health scare.
The trial includes 5,000 civil plaintiffs and 300 lawyers and more than 300,000 women around the world were fitted over a decade with the implants.
73-year-old founder and chief executive of PIP, Jean-Claude Mas has admitted filling the implants with an unapproved homemade recipe made of industrial-grade silicone gel.
Mas and four PIP executives, including the chief financial officer, are charged with aggravated fraud over selling the implants around the world from 2001 to 2010, when they were ordered off the market.
Some in the audience of about 300 complainants gathered outside the court shouted abuse as Mas appeared live on a giant video screen.
“He bears the enormous weight of this trial on his shoulders,” said his lawyer, Yves Haddad.
Nathalie Lozano said she represented 1,500 women she said had problems with the PIP implants.
The Colombian lawyer said she came to Marseille to seek justice for clients she says lack the resources to pay for follow-up care.
“They don’t even have a way to know if their implants are broken inside their body, if eventually this substance will leak into their body,” Lozano said.
Mas sought to defend himself against such charges as he left court.
“I did my best to protect them,” he said of the women.
Inspectors found vats of industrial-grade silicone outside the PIP factory in 2010, and it sparked worldwide panic when governments recommended removal of the implants because of an abnormally high rupture rate.
According to health experts, no link had been established between PIP implants and breast cancer, but plastic surgeons around the world reported a flood of removal requests from worried patients after the scandal broke.
Half the French women with PIP implants, or nearly 15,000, have already opted for removal, whether because of rupture or as a precaution, government figures show.
Mas who was released in October from eight months in detention following a failure to post bail, told police that 75 percent of PIP’s implants had contained the homemade gel, which was never been approved by regulators. Mas denied it was unsafe and he and the other executives deny the charges.
Investigators estimate that Mas’s formula allowed PIP to save almost $1.6 million in one year alone.
Mas and PIP’s former chief financial officer, Claude Couty, are separately implicated in a civil case over fiscal fraud that has yet to reach trial.
Mas is also under investigation for manslaughter after a complaint from the mother of a French woman with PIP implants who died of cancer in 2010.