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Body Armor Class-action Suit Settled

Ocala police officers may feel a little safer and happier now that a Japanese company has settled a body armor class-action lawsuit that claimed ineffective body armor was sold to the department.

The $58,000 owed to the Ocala Police Department is part of Toyobo Co.’s $29 million body armor class-action lawsuit settlement with police departments and officers nationwide.

The 160-sworn officer department in Ocala had as many as 107 of the Second Chance brand bulletproof vests at one time, said Deputy Chief Greg Graham. The force began switching them out, however, after word got out about their possible ineffectiveness.

Graham said the settlement should allow the department to outfit the entire department with suitable vests. “We’re very pleased with the result,” said Graham. “It would have been a huge drain on our budget.”

An estimated 200,000 of the nation’s 700,000 police officers wore Zylon vests last year, according to the Fraternal Order of Police. The black vest weighs about seven pounds and usually is worn over an officer’s T-shirt.

According to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, Second Chance Body Armor Inc. of Michigan and Toyobo Co. of Japan knew they were selling vests whose ability to stop bullets was overrated. In the suit, the government alleges that the two companies remained silent for nearly three years in light of mounting evidence that the Zylon fabric degraded faster when exposed to light, heat and humidity.

“We want something on we feel safe in,” Graham said.

Marion County Sheriff’s Office had 188 of the vests but did not join the lawsuit. They opted to file a claim with the bankruptcy court after the company filed for bankruptcy, said Dan Kuhn, general counsel for the Sheriff’s Office. He said considering the financial difficulties the company was going through, the Sheriff’s Office thought their best route was to go through bankruptcy court.

The payment to the Police Department must be approved by the City Council. Ocala police could run into a problem, however, getting a share of the settlement. The department, as well as the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, donated their vests to a local National Guard unit deployed to Iraq to help protect their vehicles during possible attacks. The settlement requires departments to turn in the bullet proof vests.

Graham said Ocala still has the receipts. “We’re hoping to get around it (the stipulation),” Graham said. Capt. Dennis Strow with the Sheriff’s Office said that because of liability and other issues, the bullet proof vests were never used and are sitting in a warehouse on an Army base in Georgia.

Kuhn said he didn’t expect the Sheriff’s Office gift to the 351st National Guard unit to affect its claim. A Second Chance spokesman could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Second Chance said tests showed the material was degrading from sweat and heat before its five-year life expectancy was reached. In separate federal tests, bullets penetrated about half of the Zylon-fortified vests.

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