Dr. Aaron Westrick was the research director for America’s largest body armor company – Second Chance Body Armor – and was the first official to oppose the sale of bulletproof vests made with Zylon fiber. His False Claims Act lawsuit against the manufacturers of these defective vests forced them off the market, which in turn saved police officers’ lives.
On March 15, 2018, the Japanese manufacturer of Zylon, agreed to pay the United States $66 million to resolve the allegations of False Claims Act violations against it. And on July 16, 2018, the former Second Chance president and CEO agreed to pay the government $125,000 to settle claims related to the False Claims Act suit filed against Second Chance.
Vests made with “Zylon” were degrading at an alarming rate, and it was clear that eventually, a bullet could penetrate the vest and kill a police officer. The top corporate officials involved covered up the defect. There was one exception: Dr. Aaron Westrick, the Second Chance Research Director.
Dr. Westrick warned the company of the catastrophe that would occur if a policeman was shot through the vest and died. His pleas were ignored. Vests failed. Police officers were hurt, and one died wearing a Zylon vest. Dr. Westrick used the False Claims Act lawsuit to force the Zylon vests off the market and hold the companies that profited from defective accountable. He prevailed.
The sale of Zylon vests was halted, they were removed from the market (and most replaced), numerous companies that sold the vests paid the United States millions in damages. Ultimately Toyobo had to pay $66 million in damages, along with multiple other companies. Second Chance went bankrupt and its top executives to pay damages personally. Although Westrick lost his career in the body armor industry, he was able to obtain his whistleblower reward from Toyobo, the Second Chance bankruptcy, and other smaller settlements, including one under the California False Claims Act.
Senator Charles Grassley, the author of the 1986 False Claims Act amendments, praised Dr. Westrick at a Whistleblower Day celebration: “Because of his remarkable courage, the [Zylon vests were] pulled from the market, and no doubt countless lives saved.” Money collected from Dr. Westrick’s False Claims Act suit was used to purchase 18,700 vests for police officers.
Dr. Aaron Westrick was the research director for America’s largest body armor company – Second Chance Body Armor – and was the first official to oppose the sale of bulletproof vests made with Zylon fiber. His False Claims Act lawsuit against the manufacturers of these defective vests forced them off the market, enabled the United States to recover over $100 million in damages, and, most significantly, saved police officers’ lives. He also testified in two police officer shooting cases. One where an officer was shot through a Zylon vest and was permanently disabled. The second where a police officer who was wearing a Zylon vest was shot and killed. In both cases, the police officer (or the police officer’s widow) prevailed.
The case originated in 2001, when Toyobo informed Second Chance Body Armor (“SCBA”), formerly the largest bulletproof vest company in the United States, that Zylon may experience degradation. Toyobo is a Japanese-based company that manufactured the Zylon that was imported and sold to Second Chance. At the time of Toyobo’s notification, Dr. Westrick was the SCBA Director for Research and Marketing and a rising star in the body armor industry.
Before he was employed by SCBA, Dr. Westrick was shot in the chest by a criminal and would have died had he not been wearing a Kevlar vest while on duty as a Michigan Deputy Sherriff. As a police officer and a “save,” Dr. Westrick was extremely concerned about the safety of body armor made from Zylon, especially because he had witnessed first-hand the importance of having effective protective clothing. Dr. Westrick recommended that SCBA test the Zylon vests. SCBA adopted this recommendation.
The testing results demonstrated that the Zylon vests were deteriorating at an alarming rate.
In response to these poor results, Toyobo and SCBA entered into an agreement to keep the testing results secret. The nondisclosure agreement prohibited both parties from informing the government (including their law enforcement customers) about the test results.
On December 18, 2001, Dr. Westrick grew increasingly alarmed at the Toyobo-SCBA cover-up and wrote a memo to the President of SCBA urging SCBA to “immediately notify our customers of the degradation problems we are experiencing” with the Zylon vests. He informed the President of Second Chance that SCBA should “make the right difficult decisions” and “do the right things and not hesitate.” The “obvious safety issues” should “not be hidden.” SCBA ignored this recommendation.
Instead, Toyobo and SCBA entered into a secret “rebate” agreement in which Toyobo would make “incentive payments” to SCBA if SCBA “promoted” the sale of Zylon vests “to the police force.” Upon signing the agreement, Toyobo paid SCBA an immediate “retroactive rebate” of $1.421 million.
In 2002, the President of SCBA finally decided to act on Westrick’s concerns. He wrote a confidential memo to the SCBA Executive Board acknowledging that the Zylon vests were dangerous, and explicitly urged the company to warn police. The memo included two possible solutions:
“Solution 1: We continue operating as though nothing is wrong until one of our customers is killed or wounded, or … some other entity exposes the Zylon problem,” or
“Solution #2: We publish and circulate an ad denouncing all [Zylon] vests and decline to make them anymore, unless … the customer is fully aware of the [Zylon] shortcomings.”
The SCBA General Counsel ordered that all copies of the memo be shredded and that the document be removed from the SCBA computer system. All copies of the memo were destroyed, except for one copy preserved by Dr. Westrick, which he eventually provided to the United States and other law enforcement agencies. SCBA continued to sell the Zylon vests and did not issue any warnings.
On June 13, 2003, a Zylon vest was penetrated. Officer Tony Zeppetella died while wearing body armor made with the Zylon fabric.
On June 23, 2003, Officer Ed Limbacher was shot through his vest under ballistic conditions for which the vest should have worked. He was permanently injured.
Dr. Westrick promptly “leaked” all of his documentation concerning defects of Zylon, and the Toyobo-SCBA cover-up, to representatives of Officer Limbacher, counsel for Officer Zeppetella‘s widow, and numerous state Attorney General’s offices, permitting those agencies to settle class action and personal injury cases successfully. Dr. Westrick testified in the Zeppetella case, providing critical evidence that resulted in the jury awarding Zeppetella’s widow $3.6 million in damages based on the failure of SCBA and Toyobo to warn police officers of the dangers from Zylon.
In 2004, Dr. Westrick filed a qui tam False Claims Act (“FCA”) case against SCBA and Toyobo. The federal government backed-up Westrick and intervened in the on case June 1, 2005.
Toyobo maintained that it had no liability for the vests, arguing that SCBA should be blamed as it manufactured the actual vests and that Toyobo only sold the raw Zylon to SCBA. This argument was convenient, as SCBA went bankrupt, primarily due to its Zylon-related liabilities.
Toyobo mounted an unprecedented 13-year scorched earth defense, using every possible legal maneuver to escape liability for selling unsafe body armor to police, federal agents and the U.S. military.
The case settled on the eve of an anticipated six-week jury trial. At a pretrial conference held on February 22, 2018, Dr. Westrick moved the Court to permit the jury to find Toyobo guilty of conspiracy with SCBA, thus undermining Toyobo’s principle defense, and allowing the jury to hold Toyobo accountable for all the vest sales made by SCBA. The Court granted Dr. Westrick’s request over Toyobo’s strenuous objection. That same evening, Toyobo gave up, agreeing to a settlement in principle with the United States.
All in all, the Department of Justice described the benefits obtained by the taxpayers based on Dr. Westrick’s whistleblowing: A total of $132 million recovered from 18 corporations and individuals, of which $22 million was used to purchase new body armor for police officers. But the biggest winners were police officers and federal agents around the United States who were able to replace defective Zylon vests with those that would protect their lives.