Accidents Happen—and This Manufacturer Made Them Worse


September 9, 2015 / Vehicle Accidents

Accidents that occur on major highways, or in places where drop-offs or other hazards exist, can be horrific. That’s why guardrails that stop a car’s progress are so important in mitigating such crashes. But, as it turns out, sometimes the very item meant to protect us ends up harming us. This indeed appears to be the case with Trinity Industry guardrails, which have been installed on roads around the U.S. for many years. A change in Trinity’s manufacturing process to its ET Plus product, beginning in 2005 — a change which they kept secret — created “end caps” on guardrails that turn into deadly spears, killing and maiming occupants of cars instead of protecting them by peeling away.

What Happened?

After Trinity’s guardrail design was approved by the Federal Highway Administration, the company changed the design of the end terminal, also known as the rail head, in 2005, but without telling the government. The rail head, which is a flat piece of steel supposed to slide along the rail and push metal out of the way, had the channel behind it narrowed by one inch. Speculation is that this narrowing made the rail head malfunction, causing it to act as a spear instead of as protection. Rather than absorbing an impact, which is the primary job of a guardrail, the rail head could instead cause the guardrail to impale the car and its occupants. One man in North Carolina was nearly cut in half and lost both legs, but lived. Fourteen lawsuits implicated Trinity’s revamped guardrail design for causing severe injuries and five deaths.

A Whistleblower Was the Originator of the Case

A jury in Texas found that Trinity had defrauded the federal government when it kept the changes it made in 2005 a secret. The initial award was for $175 million, but a federal judge subsequently handed down a $663 million judgment against Trinity. The amount included triple damages for defrauding the government, legal fees, and other penalties. The judgment has its origins in a whistleblower lawsuit filed by Josh Harman, a Trinity competitor who discovered in 2011 that Trinity had made the channel-narrowing change behind the rail head but had not informed federal regulators, as the law requires them to do. Because of this lack of reporting to regulators, it was deemed fraud, and the False Claims Act came into play, tripling the original $175 million award.

Harman, under The Whistleblower Protection Act, was awarded roughly $199 million of the judgment. The amount was quite high because, as the judge wrote, Harman had been forced to shoulder the full burden of the case when “the U.S. government opted not to participate in the trial.”

Now Banned in Over Thirty States

Whistleblower Harman, whose company Spig Industry LLC of Bristol, Virginia, is now bankrupt, has documented more than 40 deaths and over 100 injuries resulting from Trinity’s ET Plus rail heads. Over 30 states have now banned the guardrails and are busy replacing them. Indiana, unfortunately, is not one of these states.

Trinity is fighting the judgment and has filed a motion for a new trial.

When something goes wrong, we are left to wonder.

Our lives today expose us to more risks than ever before. For example, we spend twice as much time in our cars than we did 25 years ago. If you are thinking about hiring an Indiana car accident lawyer, you should look for an attorney who will give you competent and compassionate representation with a “client first” approach. Or, if you have information that you think will support a whistleblower case, consider proven advocate attorney Mike Stephenson. His entire legal team is committed to doing whatever is necessary to achieve the best possible outcome in your case. If you are online researching the legal rights and resources available to you, we hope you’ll reach out to us. Call attorney Mike Stephenson to talk about your questions at 1-317-825-5200, or use our online contact form. Stephenson Rife. We believe justice matters.

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