This week a Texas jury found that Trinity Industries defrauded the government by deliberately withholding information about changes to its ET-Plus highway guardrail system that potentially made it more dangerous. The company faces a potential liability of $1 billion.
The jury found the guardrail maker cheated the government of $175 million by passing off the product as eligible for federal funding, Insurance Journal reports. The damages awarded will be tripled and a penalty determined by the judge will be added – with total liability possibly reaching $1 billion, according to company attorneys.The guardrail component in question is a 175-pound steel mechanism that mounts onto the end of a guardrail to cushion the impact of a crashing car. But instead of acting like a shock absorber, Trinity’s modified version locks up and can impale oncoming vehicles, according to the lawsuit. Joshua Harman, who makes and installs guardrail systems in Virginia, sued Trinity in 2012 after having observed multiple instances of the ET-Plus jamming up during car accidents. Since then, he has traveled around the country documenting accidents and finding victims who might have been injured by an ET-Plus, according to Insurance Journal.
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 state transportation department purchases of approved products, including the ET-Plus, for use on highways across the country. The New York Times reports that four states have banned the use of the modified ET-Plus guardrail. Trinity faces more than a dozen personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits alleging the defective guardrail is responsible for the injuries and deaths, according to Insurance Journal.
Under the False Claims Act, the federal whistleblower law, an individual may sue on behalf of the government and claim a portion of the proceeds if the case is successful. Harman is eligible to collect as much as 30 percent of any judgment, according to Insurance Journal.