Highway Guardrail Safety Doubted Amid Crash Lawsuits

Despite the Federal Highway Administration’s insistence that highway guardrails are safe, many states are halting new purchases, while crash victims file lawsuits alleging the rail heads malfunction and act as spears when cars collide, causing injury rather than softening the impact.
Pending lawsuits assert the rails are to blame for at least five deaths and dozens of injuries in at least 14 accidents across the country. The actual number is undoubtedly far higher.

So far, traffic authorities in Missouri, Nevada, Massachusetts and most recently Virginia have announced in the last year they will no longer purchase more of the devices. In Texas, Trinity Industries, one of the top manufacturers of guardrails in the U.S., was found by a jury to have defrauded the federal government after the firm made changes to the rail head in 2005 without informing the government. The lawsuit was brought under the False Claims Act after being initiated by a competitor/whistleblower. The $175 million award will be tripled under federal law to $525 million.

Our crash lawyers in Charlotte know North Carolina has not been immune from the problem. In fact, a North Carolina case was one of those cited by the whistleblower in the Trinity litigation.

According to Bloomberg.com, the whistleblower happened to drive past a horrible wreck off a North Carolina interstate. The 24-year-old driver ran his vehicle off the road at 80 miles-per-hour. This impact might have been bad enough, but a strip of guardrail had punctured his door, pushing the driver’s body into the opposite back seat. He miraculously survived, but suffered spine injuries, a bruised lung, arm, leg, eye socket and pelvis fractures. The roof of his car was caved and his windshields were gone. One of the doors was completely ripped off.

The whistleblower learned the rail had been manufactured by Trinity, and that fact didn’t surprise him.

The danger, he alleged in his lawsuit, has to do with the end of the guardrail, something known in the industry as the “energy-absorbing end terminal.” It’s usually marked with black and yellow stripes, and it’s supposed to absorb some of the impact in the event of a crash, helping to slow the car and lessen the blow. Plaintiff alleged in his 2012 lawsuit that Trinity quietly made changes to these end pieces in 2012 that significantly altered the degree of safety offered. The new model narrowed the channel behind that end piece. That caused the end piece will “lock up” or “jam,” rather than slide along the length of the rail, which means the rail ends up acting more like a huge shiv than a shock absorber.

The change reportedly saved the firm about $2 per rail head.

In a separate lawsuit against the firm, executives had testified any changes made to the rails were cosmetic, and didn’t affect the performance. Company officials insisted the design changes were all still in line with federal regulations.

Regardless, when Trinity made the changes, they were not disclosed to the government for seven years, according to the most recent litigation. This is despite the fact that any changes are required to be reported to the Federal Highway Administration immediately.

The firm has said it will appeal the recent jury verdict. Still, more than a dozen other lawsuits against the company are still pending.

Contact the North Carolina crash lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Highway Guardrail May Be Deadly, States Say, Oct. 12, 2014, By Danielle Ivory and Aaron M. Kessler, The New York Times

Guardrail Maker Trinity Industries Liable for Fraud in Texas
, Oct. 20, 2014, By Danielle Ivory and Aaron M. Kessler, The New York Times

More Blog Entries:
SC Property v. Brock – Insolvent Auto Insurers and State Insurance Guaranty Association, Nov. 3, 2014, Charlotte Car Accident Attorney Blog

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