A jury recently sided with Josh Harman in a $175 million case in which Trinity Industries Inc. had been charged with making false claims to federal regulators in 2005 after making changes to its guardrail end caps, which are used on many American highways. The federal whistleblower likely utilized the services of a Houston auto accident lawyer as Trinity is based in Dallas, and the case was decided in Marshall, Texas.
The ET-Plus is the guardrail end treatment in question. It has been added to highways throughout the United States after it was changed at least nine years ago, and lawsuits such as this one have since been filed in various locales throughout the country by truck accident attorney clients in Houston and elsewhere. According to these lawsuits, the newer version of the guardrail fails to perform properly and has caused at least 12 accidents involving vehicles that have hit them after running off the road.
Although these caps are supposed to collapse away from the crashing vehicle, those who have consulted with people such as 18 wheeler accident lawyers have claimed that the ET-Plus guardrails instead pierce the vehicle and have caused at least one fatality. This is due to a reduction of their feeder chutes from 5 inches to 4 as this often causes the guardrails to get stuck inside the guide chute.
Harman has also claimed that this shrinkage has likely decreased the chances that these guardrails can be reused following a crash, allowing Trinity to sell more new terminals than had previously been the case.
According to a study conducted by the University of Alabama at Birmingham and funded by the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission and the Safety Institute, the ET-Plus guardrail is 2.9 times more likely to cause a death and 1.4 times more likely to result in a severe injury than Trinity’s earlier guardrail model, the ET-2000.
In July, a mistrial was declared in this case after it was alleged that a Trinity official had attempted to intimidate Dean Sicking, a UAB professor who led that study. The company has denied those allegations.
Trinity Industries stated that Crash tests conducted by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute have shown that these guardrails are safe enough to be approved by the Federal Highway Administration. Trinity also continues to stand by its product, stating that it has a “high degree of confidence in (its) performance and integrity.”
However, in lieu of this jury decision, the federal government sent Trinity a letter, asking it to conduct further crash testing on this guardrail and stating that a crash test plan must be submitted to the Federal Highway Administration by Oct. 31. If this is not done, the organization may deem that the use of the ET-Plus is no longer eligible for federal reimbursement when state highway departments purchase them.
Earlier in 2014, four states – Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada and Virginia –removed these ET-Plus guardrails from their lists of state-approved products, consequently banning them from any future use on roadways in those states. Nevada did so after Trinity did not disclose a change in the product while the other three states cited safety concerns as the reasons behind their decisions.
Harman originally sued Trinity in 2012 on behalf of the government, utilizing the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act. The company may end up paying $1 billion as the False Claims Act states that a guilty party will pay three times proved damages and possibly attorneys’ fees and fines as well.
Trinity has hinted that it will appeal this ruling as the company released a statement following the verdict that stated that “Trinity believes the decision cannot and will not withstand legal scrutiny” and that Harman’s allegations are “false and misleading.”