A jury in U.S. district court in Texas found that Trinity Industries defrauded the government by deliberately withholding information about modifications to its ET-Plus highway guardrail system that possibly made it more dangerous. Trinity’s total liability could top $1 billion.
The jury found the guardrail maker cheated the government of $175 million by passing off the modified product as eligible for federal funding, according to Insurance Journal. Damages will be tripled and the judge will add a penalty; total liability could reach more than $1 billion.
The allegedly defective part of the guardrail is a steel mechanism that mounts onto the end of the guardrail to absorb some of the impact of a crashing car. But instead of acting like a shock absorber, Trinity’s modified version locks up and can impale the vehicle and those inside. Joshua Harman, a Virginia maker and installer of guardrails, sued Trinity in 2012 after he observed a number of instances where the ET-Plus jammed up during a car crash. Harman has traveled around the country documenting accidents and finding victims whose injuries might have been caused by the Trinity guardrail, according to Insurance Journal. Four states have now banned the use of the ET-Plus and other states are investigating the safety issue, according to the New York Times.
The original ET-Plus was crash-tested and had been federally approved, but the modified version was never properly tested nor was the modification disclosed to the government, attorneys argued during the trial. The federal government subsidizes the purchase of approved products like the ET-Plus by state highway departments. More than a dozen personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits have been brought against Trinity, alleging the defective guardrail is responsible for the injuries and deaths, according to Insurance Journal.
Under the federal False Claims Act, a whistleblower law, an individual may sue on behalf of the government and receive a portion of the proceeds if the case is won. Harman could collect as much as 30 percent of any judgment, according to Insurance Journal.