Newspaper Columns

Zylon bullet-proof vests pose threat to police officer safety

by Attorney General Greg Abbott

A few weeks ago, I filed a lawsuit against a major manufacturer of bulletproof vests on behalf of several police departments in north and central Texas. The lawsuit by the Office of the Attorney General alleges that Second Chance Body Armor, Inc., of Central Lake, Michigan failed to reveal potentially fatal flaws in its Zylon bulletproof vest.

Second Chance claimed its "Ultima" and "Ultimax" vests with Zylon are of lighter weight and are more effective in protecting officers than "Kevlar" vests, which have been the law enforcement standard product for years. Our lawsuit alleges that the vests manufactured with 100 percent Zylon, as these were, pose a possible life-threatening hazard to those wearing them.

Second Chance claims on its website to be the "world leader" and "the most successful manufacturer" of wearable, concealable, soft body armor. More than 5,000 vests have been sold in Texas since about 1998. Each vest cost about $800, considerably more than the traditional Kevlar vests. Although no Texas officers are known to have been injured or killed while wearing the vests, the risk is too great to ignore.

By July 2001, Second Chance had substantial information from Toyobo, the Japanese manufacturer of Zylon, that the material had been found to deteriorate much more rapidly than expected when exposed to light, heat and moisture. This degradation, substantiated by independent tests in the Netherlands, led the Dutch laboratory to express serious concerns about the suitability of Zylon for use in the vests.

Although Second Chance knew of these concerns, it continued to market the vests to police officers across Texas and throughout the nation, the suit maintains. The company ignored the advice of its own director of research to notify customers of safety concerns. In late December 2001, the company estimated it would have about 236,000 Ultima and Ultimax vests in use nationwide by the end of 2002.

In July 2003, Second Chance acknowledged that a 40-caliber bullet had penetrated an Ultima vest worn by a Pennsylvania police officer, seriously injuring the officer. Another officer in California was killed while wearing one of the vests. However, Second Chance informed its customers that more conclusive factual information about the apparent vest failures was needed.

In a memo distributed after the Pennsylvania officer shooting, company officials noted, "We at Second Chance Body Armor maintain complete confidence in our products and continue to encourage all officers to wear their armor daily."

Not until September 2003 did Second Chance warn its customers that the vests might not be up to par. The company at that time offered "free upgrades," which involved inserting non-Zylon ballistic pads in front of the Zylon material. But Second Chance did not offer refunds on the vests, which were sold with five-year warranties.

My office seeks a permanent injunction barring Second Chance from selling vests containing Zylon in Texas, and a refund of money paid by Texas customers for the defective vests, as well as civil penalties of up to $20,000 per violation of the act, Attorney's fees and investigative costs.

If your department has purchased Zylon bullet-proof vests from Second Chance, we would like to know. You can contact Deanya Kueckelhan-Grail, manager of my Dallas regional Consumer Protection office at (214) 969-5310.