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BIRMINGHAM, Ala.-The convening last week of a panel of four physicians to hear and assess scientific evidence on whether silicone gel breast implants cause illness or disease could herald a new approach to how evidence is presented in mass tort cases.

The panel, a neutral body of medical experts appointed by a federal judge rather than the parties to the litigation, includes an epidemiologist, an immunologist, a rheumatologist and a toxicologist.

Panelists met for three days last week before U.S. District Court Judge Sam C. Pointer Jr. in Birmingham to hear experts for both sides in the breast implant product liability litigation testify on whether silicone causes systemic illnesses and disease. The testimony did not address whether silicone causes localized problems, because that issue is not as contentious.

This type of panel "tries to reduce emotions governing outcomes on either side. . .and focus on what are really questions of scientific fact," commented Victor E. Schwartz, counsel to the Arlington, Va.-based Product Liability Coordinating Committee. The panel is "a new way to create information that juries ultimately can look upon and depend upon."

Each medical expert on the panel will write a report and give videotaped testimony of his or her conclusions about the scientific evidence, according to court papers.

The reports will be used in federal court-and in state courts where the evidence laws permit-in cases brought by breast implant recipients against silicone implant manufacturers, according to court documents.

There is no deadline for the reports.

(contd. Part 2 )