updated 7/1/2005 12:36:38 PM ET 2005-07-01T16:36:38

The government on Friday sued the top supplier of bullet-resistant police vests and the Japanese manufacturer of the vests’ protective synthetic fiber, contending they 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 sold them anyway to local, state and federal police, according to the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington.

The government also alleged that the companies also worked together to suppress evidence that the Zylon fabric degraded faster than they acknowledged when it was exposed to light, heat and humidity.

Questions about the vests 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 them.

A company lawyer 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 the company could tap a federal body armor fund to replace the vests.

The company, now going through reorganization in federal bankruptcy court, previously recalled more than 130,000 vests made entirely with Zylon. The recent warning covers about 100,000 vests made with Zylon blends.

Second Chance also is suing Toyobo, which is a defendant in some of the other suits.

Toyobo has acknowledged that the fiber loses up to 20 percent of its durability within two years of manufacture. But the company has said Zylon works well in body armor that is properly constructed, and is not to blame for any problems with Second Chance vests.

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