(WASHINGTON) — The federal agency that a court found was misled and defrauded by a leading guardrail company is taking a hard look at whether the company’s guardrails — some of the most widely-used on America’s roads — should continue to protect American drivers.
“The Federal Highway Administration [FHWA] will evaluate the findings of the Trinity case and consider whether it affects the continued eligibility of the ET-Plus guardrail end terminal,” Department of Transportation spokesperson Brian Farber told ABC News in an email late Monday evening. “Separately, the FHWA continues to review the Trinity guardrail end terminal service record.”
The announcement came hours after a Texas jury ordered Texas-based Trinity Industries, the guardrail maker, to pay $175 million in damages after it was shown to have modified a component of the guardrails — the end terminal — back in 2005 without telling the U.S. government or any state transportation departments until years later.
Josh Harman, a competitor of Trinity’s, filed suit against the company for fraud, but also alleged that the modified end terminal made the guardrails more dangerous for motorists.
The modified guardrail end terminal, called the ET-Plus system, was the subject of an ABC News’ 20/20 investigation last month.
Harman and accident victims told ABC News that when the modified guardrail is struck from the front, rather than absorb the impact as designed, the altered guardrail end terminal can malfunction and the guardrail itself “locks up,” spearing through the car and its occupants. They linked the new guardrail to severed limbs and deaths in accidents.
In an internal company email obtained by ABC News, a Trinity official estimated that making one of the modifications — reducing a piece of metal from five inches to four — would save the company $2 per guardrail end terminal, or $50,000 per year.
Trinity maintained that the changes were made to improve the end terminal and only “inadvertently omitted” documentation about the change in papers to the government back in 2005. For ABC News’ original report, Trinity said it has a “high degree of confidence in the performance and integrity” of the ET-Plus system and noted that after the FHWA learned of the change in 2012, it still repeatedly approved the end terminal for use.
After the verdict Monday, Harman’s attorneys said they were “pleased” that the jury “after hearing evidence for just four days and deliberating for just three hours… saw the plain truth that the FHWA has clearly been defrauded and that fraud has exacted the ultimate toll in claiming lives of those unnecessarily endangered by Trinity’s secretly-modified guardrail end terminals.”
In its announcement late Monday, the DOT also urged “all states to immediately share any crash information involving the Trinity ET-Plus guardrail end terminal.”
“To be clear, our number-one priority is safety and we will take a data-driven approach to ensure safety on our highways,” the DOT said.
In recent months four states — Virginia, Massachusetts, Missouri and Nevada — have said they are suspending the installation of the ET-Plus system as they investigate further.
Trinity said it is working with the states and will appeal Monday’s decision, saying it “will not withstand legal scrutiny.”
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