June 25, 2007 -- A wholly owned subsidiary of Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK) knowingly sold to the U.S. military flares that could ignite if dropped from low heights, creating a major safety hazard, the government charged in court documents that were unsealed Friday.
The government joined a whistleblower ("qui tam') lawsuit that alerted the government to the danger of the flares made by ATK Thiokol Inc., now known as ATK's launch systems group. The U.S. military used the flares to illuminate nighttime combat and rescue missions by dropping them from planes.
The government requires the flares to meet certain safety requirements, such as making sure the flares are able to withstand a drop of 10 feet without igniting in case the flares are dropped while being handled or in transit. Once the U.S. military learned of the safety problem with ATK's flares, it discontinued using them.
"These defective flares put soldiers at risk, a San Francisco attorney with Phillips & Cohen LLP, which is representing the whistleblower. "If one had been dropped and unexpectedly ignited, serious harm could have occurred.
"The risk would have been even greater if a flare unexpectedly ignited while being transported on a plane or ship," he said.
Kendall Dye, a manager of ATK's flare program, filed the qui tam lawsuit in federal district court in Salt Lake City, Utah, in April 2006. The qui tam case was kept under seal, meaning that it was not known to the public, while the government investigated his allegations.
Dye became aware of the safety problem when he conducted a company investigation in response to a report from the Navy that the flares failed the Navy's more stringent 40-foot drop test, which the Navy had conducted in anticipation of purchasing some flares.
During the investigation, Dye learned that company officials were aware that the flares could fail in this manner after the igniters on the flares had been redesigned in 2000. But the company never let the government know about the potential problem and never tested the flares.
Dye's investigation revealed that the flares might ignite if dropped from a height of less than three feet. A company vice president told Dye not to tell anyone that the company had been aware that the flares could fail in this manner and had failed to test them, the lawsuit said. Instead, ATK informed the Air Force and other customers only that one flare had ignited after being dropped from 5 feet and one after being dropped from 10 feet and therefore the "flares may be more sensitive to impact" than provided in the specifications for the flares.
The Army and Air Force paid ATK more than $100 million for the flares. The price of a single flare ranges between $700 and $1,000.
"It is important for contractors to comply with government requirements that promote safety," said Claire Sylvia, another San Francisco attorney with Phillips and Cohen. "The military requires safe flares, and ATK knowingly failed to provide that."
"The government's team, under the leadership of Paul Wogaman and Eric Overby, did an excellent job investigating the relator's allegations and acted promptly to protect the government's interests,"..
Phillips & Cohen specializes in representing whistleblowers ("relators") in qui tam lawsuits brought under the False Claims Act.
The False Claims Act allows private individuals to sue companies that are defrauding the federal government and to recover funds on the government's behalf. Whistleblowers are entitled to 15 percent to 25 percent of the recoveries that result from the qui tam lawsuit.
For more information about Phillips & Cohen's record, see P&C's Successful Whistleblower Cases.
Case citation: U.S. ex rel. Kendall Dye v. ATK Thiokol Inc., No. 1:06CV39TS (D. Utah)