Quite often, the individuals involved in a serious car accident focus on the initial cause of the accident. Did a vehicle cut another driver off when changing lanes? Did a driver lose control of his or her car when racing down the highway at a dangerous speed? Were the roads icy or unsafe to travel on? These questions are generally the starting point of any accident investigation. Yet it is also important to look at the resulting damage and what factors may have contributed to the severity of the accident and whether steps could have been taken to minimize or mitigate any harm that came to a driver or passenger after the initial cause of the accident occurs. Recently, a federal court in Texas focused on the latter issue holding a highway guardrail manufacture liable for serious injuries, and even deaths, caused by a design change in the companies’ guardrails. This finding of liability resulted in a $663 million judgment.
A recent article in the Washington Post reports on this stunning judgment categorizing it as “one of the largest of its kind.” The case involved Trinity Industries, a company that manufactures the end caps that are placed on guardrails on the side of the road. According to federal statistics, there are over 200,000 guardrail end caps installed on American roads. These end caps, by design, are a safety feature that are built to bend away from cars that hit the end of the rail. Under both federal and state law, any design feature of a guardrail must receive both federal and state safety approval before the guardrail can be used on a road or highway. According to the Post article, Trinity received these approvals when the companies’ end caps first debuted in 1990.
In 2005, however, Trinity slightly changed the design of the end rails by reducing the portion of the rail that slides on impact by one-inch. By making this change, Trinity saved $2 per guardrail. Both federal and state officials, including the Federal Highway Administration, were never notified of the change and therefore no safety review was conducted. Joshua Harman, a Trinity competitor and eventual whistle blower, began documenting crashes involving the changed guardrails alleging that the guardrails were now impeding on vehicles rather than turning away. More than 16 lawsuits were filed against Trinity claiming serious injuries from guardrails piercing through vehicles. Additionally, five people are believed to have died due to this alternative design.
The New York Times reports that last year, a federal jury in Texas found Trinity liable under the False Claims Act for defrauding the Federal Highway Administration. The jury awarded a penalty of $175 million. Because this was a finding of fraud under the False Claims Act, those damages were tripled to $525 million. Additionally, U.S. District Judge Rodney Gilstrap “ordered Trinity to pay additional civil penalties of $138 million — amounting to $8,250 for each of 16,771 false certifications made to the government and other entities to get payment for guardrails.” He also imposed approximately $19 million in legal fees and other legal related expenses.
Trinity plans to appeal the judgment claiming that recent federal testing shows the guardrails performing safely and bending away from vehicles that crash into them. However, as Judge Gilstrap analyzed in his order, the plaintiff’s “introduced substantial evidence… [showing Trinity] made the decision to modify the ET-Plus, conceal such modifications, and falsely certify that the ET-Plus units had been accepted.” The jury agreed. Unfortunately, at the end of the day it sometimes takes tragedies and penalties such as these to highlight the importance of a corporation’s responsibility to follow the law. And while the legal system can do its part in holding those accountable and looking at all the causes of injuries surrounding an accident, there is no way to put a price on the actual and tragic harm stemming from Trinity’s business decisions. Perhaps this judgment can serve as a reminder to play by the rules and not simply the bottom line.