AG to sue maker of police vests
Defects put officers at risk, Reilly says
By Andrea Estes, Globe Staff, 11/17/2003
Saying 5,000 police officers statewide may be "at risk of physical harm or
even death," Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly plans to file
suit today against the manufacturer of a popular bulletproof vest that may
not stop gunfire.
"Officers who put their lives on the line every day must be able to trust
the equipment they use to protect themselves," Reilly said yesterday in a
statement. "We are taking this action to correct the problem with these
vests and assure that our officers have the best possible equipment."
Reilly said he intends to file suit today in Suffolk Superior Court
against Second Chance Body Armor Inc., of Central Lake, Mich., which in
September notified its customers that it had stopped selling two widely
worn models, the Ultima and Ultimax, because they could "wear out faster
An estimated 600 Massachusetts state troopers wear the $900 vests, which
come with a five-year warranty. Officers in dozens of local police
departments, including Newton, Waltham, Walpole, Cambridge, Wellesley,
Lexington, and Quincy, also wear them. Boston police wear a different
In the 15-page suit, Reilly is asking the company to replace the vests or
make "full restitution." He also is seeking damages of up to $5,000 per
violation, court costs, and legal fees.
Meanwhile most officers are still wearing the vests because their
communities lack the money to replace them, according to the Massachusetts
State Police Chiefs Association.
"You have a defective product here," said Plainville Police Chief Edward
Merrick, president of the 60-member group. "We want the vests replaced, or
we want our money back so we can buy new ones."
Second Chance disclosed the potential problem with its vests within months
after two police officers -- one in Pennsylvania and another in California
-- were killed or seriously injured when shot with their vest on.
Oceanside, Calif., officer Anthony Zeppetella was killed June 13 after
being shot 14 times -- three times in the vest. Two bullets penetrated the
vest. One of those shots was likely fatal, according to an autopsy
performed by the San Diego medical examiner.
Ten days later, on June 23, Officer Edward Limbacher of Forest Hills, Pa.,
was seriously wounded in the stomach while wearing his vest. He is still
home recovering from his wounds, said his lawyer, Romel Nicholas.
"This is frightening," said Plainville's Merrick, who suggests that many
officers do not know that at least two vests have failed. "There are so
many still out there. The cleanest thing would be for municipalities to
bite the bullet and appropriate thousands of dollars for each (new) vest."
Second Chance won't say how many of the lightweight, easy-to-wear vests it
has sold. But some competitors estimate there could be as many as 150,000
worn nationwide by officers every day.
Meanwhile, Second Chance has been deluged with requests by officers across
the country for refunds or replacements.
A class action suit has already been filed on behalf of officers in
Georgia, according to Reilly's office.
But so far, Second Chance has offered only partial restitution. The
company has offered two layers of additional fabric as a remedy, or
replacement vests at a discounted price of $329. They also have offered a
rebate that varies with the vest's age.
"Second Chance supports anything that will ensure officers' safety,"
company spokesman Gregg Smith said in a recent interview. "That's what we
have maintained all along."
Smith could not be reached yesterday for comment on the lawsuit.
Nearly two weeks ago, two US senators asked Attorney General John Ashcroft
to investigate and possibly ban the vest. Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy
and Colorado Republican Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who in 1998 started a
program to reimburse officers who purchase bulletproof vests, said they
were outraged that police officers' safety may be on the line.
"Our police officers deserve better than this," Leahy said in a statement
to the Globe. "I expect the attorney general to take this just as
seriously as we do."
Department of Justice spokeswoman Angela Harless said the US attorney
general's office is already investigating the matter and will respond to
Second Chance insists that it is the only manufacturer to acknowledge a
problem that affects not only their vests but those sold by other
companies. The problem, they say, is with Zylon, the material the vests
are made of and which the company has been using for at least 10 years.
The material supplanted Kevlar as the primary component of several
manufacturers' vests several years ago because the fiber could be molded
into lighter, thinner body armor.
Smith said Second Chance started testing used vests in 2001 after the
Japanese manufacturer of Zylon acknowledged the fibers can deteriorate
under extreme heat and humidity.
The Japanese company, Toyobo, last month said it stands behind its product
and is "deeply concerned" that some Second Chance vests wear out before
their 60-month warranty expires.
Reilly also plans to sue Toyobo, whose officials couldn't be reached
yesterday for comment.
Other companies that sell Zylon vests have refused to comment publicly but
have told their customers their vests are safe.
The president of one body armor company, however, said he refused to
manufacturer Zylon vests -- even though it cost him major contracts --
because he feared the material was unsafe.
"We did our own testing," said Stephen Armellino, president of
California-based US Armor Corporation. "We never had consistent test data.
Every once in a while, you have a situation where you have trauma or
penetration in something that consistently stops bullets. When we worked
with Zylon, we saw much too much of that."
"The fiber degrades, whether it's being used in ballistics or not. In good
conscience, I couldn't sell it."
In January, US Armor explained its position to the Los Angeles Police
Department, which was buying new vests. LAPD bought the Second Chance
vests, he said.
Reilly said yesterday that while the lawsuit proceeds, cities and towns
should take their own steps to protect their officers. He did not make
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