October 21, 2014 — The New York Times reports that a jury in Texas has found Trinity Industries liable for $525 million for defrauding the government by failing to disclose design changes on their guardrails.
The whistleblower lawsuit was filed in 2012 under the False Claims Act by Joshua Harman. The jury awarded $175 million, but under federal law, it will be tripled to $525 million. This award will be split between Harman and the United States. Trinity has vowed to appeal.
The Texas jury did not decide whether the guardrails were defective. That question will be left for personal injury cases. At least 14 injury lawsuits have been filed on behalf of people who were injured, including five people who died, after colliding with the guardrails.
During the trial, lawyers presented evidence that Trinity may have misled some states about the design of the ET-Plus guardrail. For example, in 2006, Trinity told the state of Vermont that the ET-Plus was identical to a system that was approved by the state agency and the Federal Highway Administration. The president of Trinity’s highway products subsidiary testified that the statement was inaccurate, though be believed it was true at the time.
Harman was the owner of a competing guardrail-installing business who was bankrupted in a patent dispute with Trinity. During the dispute, he discovered that Trinity changed the design of the ET-Plus guardrail sometime around 2005 without telling the Federal Highway Administration.
Harman alleges that Trinity re-designed the ET-Plus with a smaller feeder chute, which is more likely to jam up instead of deflecting the guardrail away from an oncoming car. When this happens, the guardrails may act like spears that slice through oncoming cars and impale passengers.
The re-designed ET-Plus saved about $2 in materials and made the guardrails impossible to reuse, according to Harman. He also says Trinity concealed five failed crash-tests involving the product. About 500,000 of the guardrails have been installed throughout the United States. This year, the states of Missouri, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Virginia have stopped installing the guardrails.
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