A former law enforcement officer’s whistleblower lawsuit has helped the U.S. government recover $66 million from a Japanese manufacturer that sold defective bulletproof fiber used in bulletproof vests provided to federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said that the settlement resolves allegations that Toyobo and its U.S. subsidiary, Toyobo U.S.A., knew the Zylon bulletproof fiber they made rapidly degraded in normal heat and humidity, which rendered more than half the bulletproof vests containing the material unfit for use.
The allegations were originally brought by Aaron Westrick, Ph.D., a law enforcement officer formerly employed by Second Chance Body Armor, a U.S. manufacturer that used Toyobo’s Zylon fiber in its bulletproof vests. Second Chance supplied many of the bulletproof vests purchased by the U.S. General Services Administration for law enforcement agencies throughout the country.
Dr. Westrick, who is now a criminal justice professor at Lake Superior University, filed the lawsuit against Toyobo more than a decade ago under the whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act, which allow private parties to sue on behalf of the U.S. in cases of fraud targeting federal agencies and programs.
According to the DOJ, federal authorities chose to intervene in Dr. Westrick’s whistleblower suit in 2005. The $66 million settlement with Toyobo is one part of a larger, ongoing investigation into the body armor industry’s use of Zylon in bulletproof vests, helmets, and other gear.
Before the Toyobo settlement, federal prosecutors recovered more than $66 million from 16 manufacturers, weavers, international trading companies, and individuals involved in the manufacture, distribution, or sale of Zylon products. The Toyobo settlement brings the U.S. government’s overall recoveries from the body armor industry to more $132 million.
The DOJ said that Second Chance recalled some of its bulletproof vests in 2003 because of the Zylon problem. But instead of prompting other body-armor manufacturers to follow suit, Osaka-based Toyobo, the world’s only Zylon manufacturer, instead started a public relations campaign to encourage other companies to keep selling vests and other items made with Zylon.
Toyobo continued to push Zylon from at least 2001 to 2005 even though it knew the fiber was defective and unsafe, federal prosecutors alleged.
Toyobo’s fraudulent campaign also delayed by several years the government’s efforts to figure out the true extent of Zylon degradation, the DOJ said.
It wasn’t until August 2005 when the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research, development, and evaluation agency of the DOJ, completed a study of Zylon vests that the government decertified all Zylon vests. The study found that more than half of used vests could not stop bullets that they had been certified to stop.
“Bulletproof vests are sometimes what stands between a police officer and death,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “Selling material for these vests that one knows to be defective is dishonest and risks the lives of the men and women who serve to protect us,” he added.
The DOJ said that it still has lawsuits pending against Richard Davis, the former chief executive of Second Chance, and Honeywell International Inc. for their alleged roles in the Zylon fraud.
Whistleblowers whose False Claims Act lawsuits lead to a judgment or settlement usually receive 15 to 25 percent of the total recovery as an award. Whistleblower awards can be as high as 30 percent of the total recovery.