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Whistleblower’s Lawsuit Against Guardrail Company Nets $525 Million

A version of this post originally appeared on the Legal Examiner

You probably have never given much thought to the guardrails that line U.S. roads and highways.

They’re not just metal strips.

Guardrails are designed keep cars on the road during a collision, and to protect you if your car hits it head-on. The car’s energy should force the guardrail to flatten, and stop your vehicle.

Joshua Harmon, a guardrail engineer, noticed a lot of highway guardrails were being crushed in collisions—many more than he would usually see in the course of his work.

He investigated, and found that many of those guardrails were new.

The guardrail heads were smaller than they used to be. Vehicles hitting those rails were sliced apart. People suffered catastrophic injuries.

Lawsuit claims that guardrail company defrauded the government

A few years ago, Trinity Industries, Inc.—a company that makes those guardrails, and sells them to the government—changed the guardrail design.

Trinity changed its design for the sole purpose of increasing profits.

Shaving off 1 inch of the guardrail head saved the company money in production; plus, the 4-inch guardrails heads are totally crushed in collisions (5-inch heads were repairable), forcing the purchase of new guardrails every time there is a collision.

Trinity was making money every time one of its guardrails injured or killed someone.

Trinity executives reported that the company had run tests using the new 4-inch design, and found it to be safe.

Yet, the company could not produce any record of its safety tests. It is uncertain if they ever tested the 4-inch design.

However, an email entered into trial evidence made it clear that Trinity executives knew the 1-inch guardrail change was purposefully concealed from the government.

In short: the Federal Highway Administration was paying millions to buy and replace a dangerous guardrail system that had never been approved.

Lawsuits say the guardrails were to blame for five deaths, and many more injuries, in at least 14 accidents nationwide.

Trinity found liable in False Claims lawsuit

In October,  a federal jury found in favor of Plaintiff Harmon.

Under the False Claims Act, anyone can be a “whistleblower,” reporting on companies defrauding the government of taxpayer dollars. The incentive is that the whistleblower plaintiff is entitled to a portion of the damages, which can be three times the amount of the original fraud. In this case, the final verdict of $175 million is tripled to $525 million, most of which would be paid to the federal government.

Trinity Industries, Inc. will undoubtedly appeal the verdict. But in the meantime, Trinity guardrails are on the roads in almost every state. 

The Oregon Department of Transportation has stopped the installation of any new Trinity guardrails, and is in the process of trying to locate those already in use on Oregon highways.

ODOT is now going over crash statistics to find whether the end terminals in question have been involved in crashes on Oregon highways and will determine whether they performed correctly.

Salem Statesman Journal: ODOT pulls guardrail brand from qualified products list

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