Dangerous Defective Body Armor. Few defective products could be more dangerous to their users than bulletproof vests that turn out not to be bulletproof. That would be bad enough. But, what if the manufacturer and the supplier of the bullet-resistant material actually knew about the problem before the vests were sold thereby consciously exposing thousands of law enforcement officers to serious injuries or death? That would be unconscionable.
Unfortunately, this is precisely what appears to have happened in the case of some 230,000 or more bulletproof vests manufactured by Second Chance Body Armor Inc. (Second Chance) of Central Lake, Michigan, with bullet-resistant fiber supplied by Toyobo Co. (Toyobo) of Japan.
Last November 15, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported Second Chance was aware of test results that “cast doubt on the vests’ effectiveness” for at least two years before one California police officer was killed and a Pennsylvania officer was seriously wounded by bullets that pierced the “bulletproof” vests they were wearing.
The WSJ stated that the test results were withheld “because executives feared bad news might hurt plans for an initial public stock offering.” Aaron J Westrick, a whistle-blower who was once the research director at Second Chance, has claimed (and testified) the company was aware (in 2001) that the strength of the Zylon (the fiber made by Toyobo) deteriorated much more quickly than the five-year warranty.
Zylon Fibers Was Weakened When Exposed To High Temperature And Humidity
Test results from Toyobo in 2001 showed the resilience of the Zylon fibers was weakened when exposed to high temperature and humidity. Research by Second Chance on used vests then showed more rapid loss of bullet-resistance than expected. A second report by Toyobo later that year showed an even sharper decrease in Zylon’s effectiveness over time.
According to the WSJ, depositions and other documents filed as part of ongoing civil litigation reveal during 2001 and 2002 there was considerable internal conflict at Second Chance over what to do about the mounting evidence that the vests were seriously flawed in terms of long-term resilience. The company continued to conceal the problem and avoided any recall or warning.
At least one Second Chance official claims to have told the executive committee in 2002 that it had two choices. It could do nothing “until a customer is injured or killed” or until the problem is discovered and then “make excuses as to why we didn’t recognize and correct the problem,” or it could notify customers and stop selling the 100% Zylon vests. There are allegations that the company attempted to destroy all copies of the memo of that meeting.
Mr. Westrick says “he was told to keep the results quiet because company executives stood to lose as much as $20 million if the company didn’t launch an IPO.”
In September 2003 Second Chance announced it would upgrade and replace 130,000 potentially defective vests. Thereafter, the company filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 (October 2004) citing the cost of replacing those vests and mounting legal fees.
Now, the Justice Department has joined the fray by filing its own civil suit against Second Chance and Toyobo on behalf of several federal agencies that bought thousands of Zylon vests. The complaint alleges that between 1998 and 2001, the two companies “kept silent as to the ever-mounting information in their possession that the Zylon fabric degraded substantially faster than expected.”
Second Chance now appears to be blaming Toyobo for the entire problem while Toyobo claims the failure of Second Chance to share critical information about vest-failure tests with Toyobo, the public, and investigating authorities makes Second Chance the “bad actor.”
The Justice Department claims that from as early as 1998, test results showed Zylon fiber deteriorated “rapidly” when exposed to visible and fluorescent light. Moreover, a document prepared by Second Chance and given to Toyobo stated the two companies “must avoid even the perception of a possible problem.” Finally, the additional testing in 2001 showed the vests bullet-resistance broke down upon exposure to high temperatures and humidity.
The federal government purchased 40,000 vests made with Zylon in 1998. The WSJ reports that, last week, Second Chance recommended an additional 98,000 vests made with Zylon be replaced citing new research that showed they “may fail to perform and result in serious injury or death.”