Calif. Superior Court rules bulletproof vest manufacturer liable for death of officer

Natalie White
Lawyers USA
Copyright 2006 Dolan Media Newswires

A California jury ordered a bulletproof vest manufacturer to pay the family of a slain police officer $3.6 million for failing to warn law enforcement officials of the product's failings.

The plaintiffs contended that the vests degrade quickly when exposed to light, heat and humidity - and that Second Chance Body Armor knew this and failed to warn its customers.

"A bullet was going to go through one of these vests sooner or later, and they knew it," said Gregory Emerson, the family's attorney. "This lawsuit wasn't about the money. It's about not letting something like this happen again. "

After a weeklong trial, jurors awarded Tony Zeppetella's widow and son $2.1 million in economic damages, including lost wages, and $1.5 million in non-economic damages for loss of love and companionship.

The jury found that the shooter, Adrian George Camacho, was 70 percent responsible for the non-economic damages, but the family had dropped Camacho from the lawsuit after he was sentenced to death for the shooting.

The remaining 30 percent of the non-economic damages was divided between Second Chance Body Armor (20 percent) and Toyobo Co. Ltd., (10 percent) the Japanese company that produces the Zylon fiber used in the vest.

The jury found the two companies 100 per liable for the $2.1 million in economic damages.

"What the jury saw was that the evidence showed these companies certainly knew of the problems that could result in a penetration, and they chose to go forward anyway without notifying anyone in law enforcement of the defects," said Emerson.

Exaggerated promises

Zeppetella was a 27-year-old rookie police officer in Oceanside, Calif., when he was shot to death during a routine traffic stop in 2003. Two bullets sliced through the Second Chance vest he was wearing.

The defendants argued at trial that no vest could have stopped the bullet that killed him because of the angle it hit the vest.

However, the plaintiffs' experts told jurors that the vest would have protected Zeppetella if the materials had not weakened and it performed as the manufacturer promised. They said the angle of the bullet had little to do with the failure.

Emerson said the companies knew for several years that the strength of Zylon fibers, used to make the vests, quickly and significantly degraded - sometimes in only a few months - yet continued to sell the vests and did not let law enforcement officials know of the potential dangers and risks.

In fact, Zeppetella had actually upgraded to the Second Chance vest because he thought there would be less risk because of the company's claims about its effectiveness. He owned the vest for about seven months before his death, Emerson said, and had paid an additional $300 of his own money for the upgrade.

"It's one thing to know there are risks and know you are taking those risks," said Emerson.

He said the most dramatic moment in the trial occurred when the plaintiffs introduced a memo from a Second Chance official saying that because of the degradation issue, the company had two choices: pull the vests off the market or "do nothing and let a cop" get killed.

Split decision

Jurors told reporters after the verdict that they had all agreed that the companies failed to warn, but could not agree whether the vest failed because of a defect or because of the angle of the bullet. Jurors also said that although they could not determine the issue of defectiveness they did feel the companies should have warned of the risks so that Zeppetella could decide whether to wear that vest or get another.

The federal government has also sued Second Chance Body Armor and Toyobo, Co., alleging that the companies conspired to hide evidence that the vests were defective. As in the Zeppetella case, the federal suit claims Second Chance sold hundreds of thousands of the vests to local, state and federal police despite knowing that they were overstating the vests' effectiveness.

Second Chance stopped selling the vests and acknowledged safety problems only after Zeppetella died and another police officer was injured when a bullet went through his vest.

Defense attorneys are expected to file motions to set aside the verdict, Emerson said.

Plaintiffs' attorney: Gregory S. Emerson of the Law Office of Gregory S. Emerson in Los Angeles.

Defense attorneys: Robert L. Green of Green & Hall in Orange, Calif.; Michael J. Lyle of Weil, Gotshal & Manges in Washington, D.C.

The case: Zeppetella v. Second Chance Body Armor; Sept. 7, 2006; California Superior Court in Vista, Calif.; Judge Michael Anello. 

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