June 9, 2006

VISTA – A wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the widow of a murdered Oceanside police officer against the companies involved in producing the officer's protective vest will be allowed to go to trial, a judge ruled yesterday.

Oceanside police Officer Tony Zeppetella was slain June 13, 2003.
In doing so, Judge Michael Anello reversed his earlier tentative decision and denied requests by the companies to dismiss the case. They are Second Chance Body Armor Inc., which manufactured and sold the vest, and Toyobo Co. Ltd., the Japanese company that supplied the Zylon synthetic fibers placed inside the body armor that was marketed as bullet resistant.

Officer Tony Zeppetella, 30, was slain June 13, 2003, after he made a traffic stop in the parking lot of a credit union. His killer, Adrian Camacho, shot the officer 13 times, was convicted of murder and is on death row awaiting execution.

On June 1, Anello sided with the companies, who argued that attorneys for Jamie Zeppetella had not shown the vest failed and contributed to her husband's death. Anello heard oral arguments from both sides the next day and reviewed the evidence before making his final decision.

The judge ruled that Jamie Zeppetella's attorneys raised enough issues for the case to proceed. Specifically, a jury should decide whether the fibers in the vest degraded and allowed one of the shots that hit the officer to penetrate the body armor and cause a fatal wound to the chest, Anello wrote.

Evidence presented by Jamie Zeppetella's lawyer, Gregory Emerson, showed that as early as 2001, Toyobo expressed concerns that Zylon would degrade if exposed to high temperature and humidity, conditions a police officer is likely to experience during the summer.

Police officers were not warned about the potential problem until October 2003, and Tony Zeppetella would be alive if the vest worked as promised, Emerson argued in court papers.
Anello originally sided with experts hired by both companies, who argued the vest itself was not penetrated by bullets because they struck within three inches of the vest's edge where the U.S. Department of Justice has said body armor cannot be expected to stop a bullet.

While that may be true, Anello ruled, the companies failed to address the degradation evidence presented by Emerson.

“There are triable issues of material facts as to whether (the bullet) penetrated the vest and what caused the penetration,” Anello wrote.

Emerson said Jamie Zeppetella was pleased with the final ruling.

“We just appreciate that the court took the time to reconsider,” Emerson said. “It's the right result.”

Attorneys for Second Chance Body Armor did not return phone calls seeking comment. A Toyobo spokesman said the company is prepared for the trial, scheduled to begin Aug. 4.

“The case goes forward, but under this decision, they have a harder case to prove,” spokesman Kent Jarrell said. “At the end of the day, the true culprit is the criminal who is sitting on death row.”