By: Gregory L. Laker, Attorney
Trinity Industries, Inc. may be the focus of a criminal investigation by the United States Department of Justice.
Trinity Industries was accused of defrauding the government by failing to disclose a design change to its ET-Plus guardrail system that has led authorities to question the safety of the devices. Last Fall, A Texas jury awarded $175 Million dollars in a whistleblower lawsuit brought against Trinity. The New York Times reports that the Justice Department has recently requested documents and other records related to that lawsuit.
In 2005, Trinity Highway Products changed its guardrail design and made a reduction in the width of the rail covered by the endcap allegedly saving the company millions of dollars in production costs. Since 2005, several people have been injured or killed after colliding with an ET-Plus guardrail.
The job of the guardrail
Guardrails are intended to absorb energy and keep vehicles from veering into on-coming traffic or other roadside hazards. Upon impact a guardrail that is functioning properly should peel away from a vehicle while also slowing it down. A flat piece of steel is typically placed at the end of a guardrail forming a T-shape as seen from the top. This piece of metal is usually called a terminal or endcap. In a collision the endcap should travel down the length of the guardrail as it peels away from the vehicle.
Troubles with the ET-Plus guardrail system
Reports of serious injury and deaths followed a design change made by Trinity Highway Products in 2005. Motorists alleged the ET-Plus guardrail system contained a design flaw that allowed the guardrail to impale vehicles and motorists rather than peel away from the impact.
A lawsuit filed by a woman in New York claimed that the vehicle she was traveling in struck an ET-Plus guardrail which impaled the vehicle and caused it to overturn rather than absorb the shock of the impact and peel away as it was designed to do. The woman sustained serious injuries including broken bones as a result of the crash. In addition, her son who was traveling with her was pinned to the roof of the vehicle by the guardrail that impaled the vehicle. He suffered pelvic injuries and head trauma.
A North Carolina man also filed a similar lawsuit and alleged the faulty design of the guardrail was responsible for the loss of both of his legs. The man fell asleep at the wheel and collided with the guardrail terminal. The guardrail penetrated the floorboard of his vehicle and sliced through both of his legs. As in the other crash, the guardrail failed to peel away from the impact and resulted in serious injury.
Federal Highway Administration tests guardrails
A whistleblower lawsuit was filed against Trinity Highway Products in 2013 for failing to disclose design changes it made to its guardrail systems. In December 2014, a federal jury found Trinity Highway Products was liable for defrauding the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for failing to disclose the design changes and conduct testing.
Following the Court’s decision, the FHWA ordered crash tests of the ET-Plus guardrail systems. A recent report released by the FHWA contains an analysis of four crash tests that were conducted on the Trinity ET-Plus guardrail end terminal at a height of 31 inches. Three of the four test results were deemed ‘unremarkable’ and one resulted in damage to the exterior of the vehicle. However, there is still a debate regarding the safety of the Trinity ET-Plus guardrails as some experts question the validity of the testing methods used in this report—especially in light of the number of lawsuits filed by seriously injured motorists.
Distribution of the ET-Plus guardrail system was halted to all 50 states after the December verdict. Federal officials estimate there are 200,000 ET-Plus guardrail systems installed on the nation’s roads currently.
Lawmakers are now calling for additional investigation into the safety of these guardrails. If you or someone you know has been seriously injured in a vehicle collision, contact me. I have helped many clients and families with serious personal injury claims and can provide you with a no-obligation case evaluation.