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US suing companies over faulty police vests

Contends evidence of defects hidden

WASHINGTON -- The government yesterday sued the top US supplier of bullet-resistant police vests and the Japanese manufacturer of the vests' protective synthetic fiber, contending the firms conspired to hide evidence that the body armor could be defective.

Second Chance Body Armor Inc. of Central Lake, Mich., and Toyobo Co. knew that the vests' ability to stop bullets was overstated, but Second Chance sold them anyway to local, state, and federal police, according to the lawsuit in US District Court in Washington.

The government also alleged that the companies kept silent for nearly three years in the face of mounting evidence that the Zylon fabric degraded faster than they acknowledged when it was exposed to light, heat, and humidity.

Only after an Oceanside, Calif., police officer was killed and a Forest Hills, Pa., officer was seriously wounded while wearing Second Chance vests made of Zylon in June 2003 did the company stop selling certain models and disclose safety problems, the lawsuit said.

Second Chance executives also ordered the destruction of internal memos, including one that urged the company to take corrective action and not wait until an officer was killed, the lawsuit said.

Second Chance and Toyobo traded accusations yesterday for problems with the vests.

''Second Chance was the bad actor, not Toyobo," said Kent Jarrell, a spokesman for Toyobo.

Mary Ann Sabo, a Second Chance spokeswoman, said the company has been working closely with the Justice Department and expects to be vindicated. Sabo said Toyobo ''is ultimately responsible for the problems with Zylon."

Questions about the vests, initially praised for their strength and light weight, were first raised by a whistle-blower, Second Chance's former director of research and development.

Second Chance is facing more than a dozen suits by states, police agencies, and individuals. Last week, the company acknowledged that the Zylon vests may not be safe and urged its customers to replace nearly 100,000 vests that had not previously been recalled.

An attorney for the company has said Second Chance did not recall its remaining Zylon vests because the company did not have the money to replace them. The lawyer said it was possible that the company could tap a federal body-armor fund to replace the vests.

The company, now going through reorganization in federal bankruptcy court, earlier recalled more than 130,000 vests.

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