Japanese company agrees to pay $66 million in defective body armor scandal

A settlement agreed to in federal court this week brought some closure to ongoing litigation over the use of a controversial synthetic fiber in defective ballistic vests.

The Department of Justice announced the settlement with Japanese textile giant Toyobo over alleged false claims made concerning the long-term effectiveness of Zylon, a polymer material, in body armor. The feds will receive $66 million from the company while the U.S-based whistle-blower who shined light onto the potentially ineffective vests will pocket $5.7 million.

“Bulletproof vests are sometimes what stands between a police officer and death,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a statement. “Selling material for these vests that one knows to be defective is dishonest, and risks the lives of the men and women who serve to protect us.”

The case, first filed against body armor manufacturer Second Chance in 2004 by DOJ and Dr. Aaron Westrick, a concerned former employee of the body armor company, and later amended to include Toyobo, saw more than 600 court filings in the past 15 years. As claimed in court documents, Zylon, originally invented by the Air Force with the rights later sold by Dow to Toyobo, was shown in internal testing by the Japanese company as far back as 1998 to degrade rapidly when exposed to light. Westrick noted as early as 2001 that, when used in hot, humid conditions, the effect of hydrolysis could degrade a vest as much as 7 percent in just 40 days, a rate said to be “abnormally high” and blew the whistle on claims the vests were capable of an effective lifespan of several years.

Nonetheless, Second Chance produced vests made with Zylon as late as 2003 and, as claimed by Westrick, removed him from access to degradation testing information on Zylon-based armor before firing him. The body armor maker warrantied the vests for five years, a benchmark that later testing by the National Institute of Justice failed to meet.

Second Chance later recalled over 100,000 Zylon-fortified vests and entered bankruptcy after two police officers were shot in 2003 while wearing possibly ineffective armor. The resulting outcry resulted in then-Attorney General John Ashcroft’s announcement of the Body Armor Safety Initiative to establish a comprehensive review process by which body armor is certified. At the same time, Toyobo stood by the fiber, allegedly downplaying the known degradation issue, and launched a public relations campaign urging other manufacturers to continue using the material.

In all, the federal government has collected $132 million from companies and individuals involved in the construction and marketing of Zylon body armor and still has litigation pending against Richard Davis — Second Chance’s former chief executive — and Honeywell.

Westrick, now a criminal justice professor at Lake Superior State University and a nationally recognized whistle-blower, will receive $5.7 million as part of the settlement.

The survivors of Oceanside, California police Officer Tony Zeppetella, killed in 2003 while wearing a Second Chance Zylon vest that failed to stop two 9mm rounds, reached a separate settlement in 2006. Other cities and states have also pursued class-action lawsuits against Zylon body armor suppliers and makers.

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