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Federal lawsuit alleges highway guardrails can kill people

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The guardrails that line US highways are meant to protect drivers in the event of a crash, but many that have been installed over the past decade may also present a danger. The manufacturer of those guardrails, Trinity Highway Products, is heading to court this week facing allegations that it changed its guardrail design without informing the Federal Highway Administration and has been improperly accepting federal money ever since, according to The New York Times. Separate lawsuits reportedly allege that those changes have led to five deaths and many other injuries in at least 14 accidents across the US.

Federal agencies reportedly didn't know of the change for seven years

When the end terminal of a guardrail is hit, it's supposed to divert the rail away from the oncoming vehicle while also absorbing the crash's impact. But in some instances, the end of the guardrail fails to do this, instead allowing the rail to pierce the striking vehicle — and potentially anyone inside. This has allegedly started happening because of a seemingly minor cost-saving change by Trinity: shrinking the width of the guardrail's feeding channel from five inches to four. Though Trinity is said to have conducted and passed tests for this new design, it apparently did not alert or receive approval for the change when it was made back in 2005. Federal agencies were reportedly not made aware of it until 2012. The video above demonstrates use of the ET-2000 terminal, which is the predecessor to the altered model, the ET-Plus.

Trinity is now facing a false claims lawsuit saying that it improperly took federal funds for this new guardrail, which was not specifically approved. The suit was filed by Joshua Harman on behalf of the US government. The Times reports that Harman partially owns two companies that manufacture and install guardrails and was sued by Trinity for patent infringement back in 2011. Bloomberg reports that Harman could earn as much as a third of any judgement against Trinity, which has up to $1 billion at stake.

Despite the serious claims, it's unclear if Harman will be able to back them up. Trinity tells Bloomberg that the allegations are "false and misleading," and the Federal Highway Administration still allows states to receive federal reimbursement for them, having not found enough evidence that they're a problem. However, several states are opposed to the new rails. The Times reports that Missouri, Nevada, and Massachusetts have all banned further installation of these new guardrail terminals, expressing concerns over their safety. Tens of thousands of the terminals have reportedly been installed nationwide.

Trinity did not respond to a request for comment. This is the second time Harman's case has gone to trial. Bloomberg reports that the first case again Trinity was declared a mistrial in July.