Lawsuits mount for maker of protective police vests
By Dana Littlefield
The San Diego Union Tribune
OCEANSIDE, Calif. - What Oceanside police Officer Tony Zeppetella didn't know last year when he pulled over a suspicious car in a parking lot proved fatal.
He didn't know the driver was armed and on drugs and that in the ensuing gunfight the driver would get off 13 shots.
And he didn't know that the protective vest he was wearing was made of a "miracle" fiber called Zylon that was developing a reputation for failure.
In the aftermath of the shooting, law enforcement agencies across the country are emptying their lockers of protective vests made of Zylon, a synthetic, lightweight material that some studies show breaks down sooner than expected.
Now all eyes are on a manufacturer of those vests, Second Chance Body Armor of Central Lake, Mich.
"For them to sell law enforcement a vest that is supposed to be bullet-resistant, and later it's proved that it's not, it's just absolutely without excuse," said Mark Falcione, past president of the La Mesa Police Officers Association.
"I would never buy anything from that company again."
The U.S. Department of Justice launched a review of Zylon in November and is expected to report its findings next month. The department will then convene a summit with law enforcement representatives, vest manufacturers and testing organizations by March to review those conclusions.
Meanwhile, Second Chance has stopped manufacturing its Ultima II and Ultimax vests, both of which are made primarily of Zylon, and has mounted an aggressive campaign to inform law enforcement agencies of potential dangers. The company posted warnings about the vests on its Web site and has gone so far as to call individual officers who bought the body armor.
The Oceanside Police Department has spent more than $60,000 to replace about 100 Zylon vests after Zeppetella, 27, died in the traffic stop in June.
Attorneys for the officer's family said in a lawsuit against Second Chance that at least three of the shots fired at Zeppetella penetrated his vest. At least two of those bullets rendered him defenseless, the attorneys say.
"We wanted to make sure that our officers had complete confidence in the equipment they're being issued," Oceanside police Capt. David Heering said.
Police departments in Chula Vista, La Mesa and National City also are replacing their Zylon vests. Many have switched to Kevlar, a fiber made by DuPont, and are working with Second Chance and other companies that sold Zylon vests to determine how the departments will be reimbursed.
Many law enforcement agencies throughout the region, including the San Diego Police Department, the county Sheriff's Department and the California Highway Patrol, say they have never used vests made mainly of Zylon.
Second Chance spokesman Gregg Smith said the company is offering departments or individual officers who want to upgrade or replace their body armor credits toward the purchase of replacement vests made of stronger, heavier Kevlar.
Another option is to reinforce the Zylon vests with a set of free Kevlar inserts, called Performance Pacs, a remedy thousands of officers have accepted, Smith said.
But to some in law enforcement, that's not good enough.
"That was not an acceptable course for our department," said Heering, the Oceanside captain. "It just seemed like a patch. You're adding weight. You're adding thickness."
Some police officers, such as Falcione, say the only satisfactory course of action is for Second Chance to replace the vests outright and swallow the cost of selling a defective product.
Second Chance faces at least six lawsuits sparked by investigations into Zeppetella's death as well as the injury of a Pennsylvania police officer in June. Like Zeppetella, Forest Hills police Officer Edward Limbacher was wearing a Second Chance Ultima II vest when a .40-caliber bullet penetrated it and entered his abdomen.
Limbacher is still recovering from his injury.
Massachusetts, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois and Connecticut have sued Second Chance, some asking to be fully compensated for the cost of replacing the Zylon vests worn by officers in those states. Arizona and Iowa have started their own investigations.
Ballistic vests are made of woven fibers that prevent injury to an officer by absorbing the energy of a fired bullet over a wide area. Authorities caution that no protective vest is bullet-proof but that, if manufactured and cared for properly, all should perform to certain specifications.
Second Chance introduced Zylon vests in the United States in 2000 and now boasts 40 percent of the soft body armor market in the country. Second Chance cites more than 900 "saves" associated with its products, 30 of which the company links directly to its Zylon products.
All vests are meant to be worn for a finite period. Zeppetella's vest was to be replaced in five years - but was only 8 months old when he was killed.
Zeppetella's family filed its lawsuit against Second Chance in November, contending that the company knew their Zylon vests degraded sooner than advertised but did nothing to prevent the 200,000 law enforcement officers nationwide who wore the vests from continuing to use them.
Toyobo, the Japanese maker of Zylon, and Toyobo America Inc., the company's New York-based arm also are named in the suit.
According to the lawsuit, Toyobo warned Second Chance in 2001 that the Zylon fibers in the vests weakened quickly under certain conditions. Tests showed the fiber retained only about 35 percent of its original strength when exposed to six months of "any visible light."
In a letter to customers dated Dec. 12, Toyobo official Masakazu Saito said the company conducted periodic tests on the aging of Zylon "since at least 2001" but left it to the manufacturer to conduct any testing of the vests' protective abilities.
Saito wrote that no body armor manufacturer other than Second Chance had reported or experienced problems with the durability of Zylon ballistic vests.
Second Chance spokesman Smith said Toyobo's laboratory tests didn't prove that the vests were unsafe, because they didn't reproduce "real world" circumstances. He said the only way to test a ballistic vest is to shoot at it.
The company conducted its own tests of previously worn Zylon vests - more than 200 Ultima vests from 37 agencies in 19 states - and found there was an unexpected decrease in fiber strength after the vests were shot at, though test results were inconsistent. Some vests withstood the shots, and others, sometimes newer ones, did not.
When Second Chance learned that Zeppetella had been killed and Limbacher injured, Smith said, the company notified manufacturers' representatives and police chiefs across the country that there might be a safety issue with the vests.
"Those were enough for us to go public," he said.
Paul Banducci, president and CEO of Second Chance, told customers in September that no one in the industry would have predicted the early degradation of Zylon when it was first introduced.
"This new advanced fiber is the strongest man-made fiber in the world," he wrote in a letter posted on the company's Web site. "It allowed vest manufacturers to make vests so thin and light that it virtually removed the burden of wearing armor.
"Little did we know where this new fiber would lead us," the letter stated.
According to the lawsuit, Zeppetella's vest was made in October 2002, more than a year after Second Chance was warned of potential problems with Zylon. The Oceanside Police Department had issued Zeppetella a different vest, but he paid $300 of his own money to upgrade to the $950 Zylon vest.
Adrian Camacho, 28, is accused of murdering Zeppetella on June 13after the officer stopped him in the parking lot of the Navy Federal Credit Union on Avenida de la Plata in Oceanside. Authorities say Camacho shot Zeppetella at least 13 times. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in the case, which is scheduled to go to trial in August.
Of the three bullets that penetrated Zeppetella's vest, two went completely through the Zylon material, the lawsuit says. The bullets were 9 mm rounds, the kind that Zeppetella's vest was designed to withstand, according to the allegations.
Attorneys for the Zeppetella family contend that were it not for the failure of the vest he was wearing, Zeppetella would have survived.
Copyright 2007 San Diego Union-Tribune
Lawsuits mount for maker of protective police vests