Federal Government Sues Contractors in Washington DC Court Over Allegedly Defective Material Used in Body Armor

A whistleblower lawsuit accuses several government contractors of providing material used in bulletproof vests to law enforcement agencies around the country, despite allegedly knowing about defects in the material that caused it to degrade over time and offer reduced protection. The federal government intervened in the lawsuit, and recently obtained the court’s permission to amend its complaint. United States ex rel. Westrick v. Second Chance Body Armor, Inc., et al, No. 1:04-cv-00280, mem. op. (D.D.C., Dec. 30, 2013). The suit is based on the federal False Claims Act (FCA), so it does not expressly assert products liability claims for injuries allegedly caused by defective vests or body armor. FCA cases can benefit people who have suffered injury due to design, manufacture, or marketing defects by identifying and exposing evidence that helps their cases.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia described the background of the case in an order denying a motion to dismiss brought by several defendants. United States ex rel. Westrick v. Second Chance Body Armor, Inc., et al, 685 F.Supp.2d 129 (D.D.C. 2010). In 1996, Second Chance Body Armor (“Second Chance”) entered into a contract with Toyobo, a Japanese company that manufactures textiles and fibers. Toyobo supplied Second Chance with Zylon, a synthetic fiber touted as durable, long-lasting, and heat-resistant. Second Chance manufactured Ultima and Ultimax bulletproof vests using Zylon, marketing them as the “world’s thinnest, lightest, and strongest armor” with the “world’s strongest fiber.” Id. at 132.

The two companies allegedly became aware in 1998 that Zylon fibers experienced significant degradation after “exposure to light, heat, and humidity,” id., but they did not issue warnings about their findings or recall any products. Second Chance discontinued selling vests made with Zylon, notified purchasers of the problem, and urged removal of Zylon vests from service after two police officers were killed in June 2003 when bullets pierced their vests. A study by the U.S. Department of Justice (PDF file) released in 2005 found that only four out of sixty armors met all of its performance standards in ballistics tests, and concluded that the chemical breakdown of Zylon fibers was the likely cause of the performance problems.

A former Second Chance employee filed a qui tam lawsuit against Second Chance and Toyobo in 2004, claiming FCA violations. A qui tam lawsuit, commonly known as a whistleblower lawsuit, is filed by a private citizen on behalf of a government entity for alleged fraud. The government may decide to intervene in the case, or the individual may continue to pursue the case on their own. The U.S. intervened in this case, alleging that the defendants presented fraudulent claims and made false statements to the government, conspired to defraud the government, and were unjustly enriched by the scheme.

The defendants faced numerous claims by police departments, city governments, and state attorneys general seeking reimbursement for body armor purchases. Arizona, Pennsylvania, and other states filed consumer fraud lawsuits, and several police organizations filed suit seeking damages for injuries resulting from defective armor. Second Chance and several of its officers settled the FCA lawsuit, but the companies may continue to face possible liability for injuries caused by the allegedly defective products.

The products liability lawyers at Lebowitz & Mzhen help people in the Washington, DC area recover compensation for injuries caused by defective or dangerous products. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we may assist you, contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949.

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Supreme Court Rules that Federal Law Preempts State Wrongful Death Lawsuit Over Asbestos Exposure: Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp., Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog, October 12, 2012

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