Joseph A. Lombardo
Massachusetts and Missouri have placed temporary bans on highway guardrails manufactured by Trinity Industries. State Highway officials say the guardrails, which have been linked to deaths and amputation injuries, have a defective design which allows them to puncture cars and their occupants like “spears.” Now at the center of multiple product suspensions and personal injury lawsuits, Trinity maintains that its guardrails are perfectly safe and meet all federal guidelines.
“It Essentially Was a Spear That Came Through My Car”
With hundreds of thousands of units installed along highways throughout the country, guardrails are a comforting and familiar sight. Not only do guardrails help protect passenger vehicles from rolling down the sides of embankments, they’re also designed to inflict minimal damage in the event of a head-on collision. Under normal circumstances, the flat rail heads absorb the impact of a direct strike, while the rung-like vertical posts dislodge and fly outward. But thanks to a seemingly insignificant design modification, guardrails manufactured by Trinity Industries are no longer a safety feature, but a safety hazard.
“It essentially was a spear that came through my car,” says Rebecca Dryer. Dryer was lucky enough to survive her ordeal — but today, she wears a prosthetic limb in place of her right leg.
And Dryer isn’t the only one with a harrowing story to tell.
“It was the most helpless I’ve ever felt, and the most terrified I’ve ever seen my children,” says Luke Robinson, another unfortunate victim. “Looking back and seeing my children and seeing my youngest pinned in his seatbelt upside down, he wasn’t saying anything,” Robinson remembers. “He was just screaming.”
In yet another instance, a male victim can be heard calmly telling a 911 operator, “I’ve lost my legs in a wreck.”
While new bans enacted by Massachusetts and Missouri have renewed public interest in the guardrails, the problem can actually be traced back nearly a decade. In 2005, Texas-based guardrail manufacturer Trinity Industries altered their original design in order to cut costs, slicing off about an inch of metal for an expenditure reduction of $2 per post. As one internal memo calculated, “That’s $50,000 a year and $250,000 in 5 years by using the 4″ channel.”
But despite clear and unambiguous references to financial savings, Trinity denies that profit was a variable in adopting the 2005 design modification. Why else a company would opt to make large-scale changes to an established manufacturing process is unclear, but that’s Trinity’s official position.
Dean Sicking, who invented the original 5″ design, is also puzzled. “I was not involved in that change,” Sicking says, “and never really understood why they did it.”
Product Bans and Personal Injury Lawsuits Target Trinity Guardrails
Trinity has denied all allegations of cost-cutting, and defends the efficacy of its products. In 2013, the company issued a statement saying, “Trinity has a high degree of confidence in the performance and integrity of the ET-Plus® System… The false and misleading allegations being made were reviewed by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The FHWA re-affirmed its acceptance of the ET-Plus® System in October 2012 and its eligibility for use on the National Highway System.”
But others refute Trinity’s assurances that the guardrails are effective.
“I have been in the business 25 years, and I have never seen anything like this,” says whistleblower and guardrail installer Josh Harman. “I want the truth out. These things are destroying families’ lives.”
Harman was behind the “false and misleading allegations” cited by Trinity in 2012, when he filed a lawsuit against the company in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas on behalf of the general public. However, that case ended in a mistrial after U.S. District Judge Rodney Gilstrap expressed “serious concerns” about both plaintiff and defendant, calling the trial “replete with errors, gamesmanship, inappropriate conduct, and matters that should not be a part of any trial where a fair and impartial verdict is expected.”
Nonetheless, U.S. v. Trinity Industries Inc. is hardly the only case to arise from the guardrails. Joining it are no fewer than nine personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits, including one filed by Rebecca Dryer.
In addition to the spate of lawsuits, Trinity now faces another hurdle: two more temporary bans on its guardrails.
Nevada was the first of three states to adopt the bans, calling the removal of Trinity guardrails from its Qualified Products List a “procedural measure” in early 2014. Missouri and Massachusetts have now enacted their own bans, and are no longer purchasing modified guardrails from Trinity until the matter is resolved.
“These are two states that take safety seriously,” says Safety Institute president Sean Kane, “and we’re hoping that we’ll see more states do the same.”
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