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Highway Guardrail Impalement Injuries, Deaths Lead to Lawsuits

A handful of states are reconsidering a certain brand of highway guardrails after investigations revealed they were harming drivers instead of protecting them.

Trinity Industries, the manufacturer of the highway guardrails, reportedly made a change to its design in 2005, one that allegedly can cause the guardrail to impale an impacting vehicle rather than curl out of its way. The New York Times reports that guardrails with this questionable design were installed "coast to coast" over at least seven years, prompting a rival company to sue under federal law.

How are states' responses and this federal lawsuit working to remove allegedly dangerous guardrails from the nation's highways?

States Block Sales of Dangerous Guardrail

Despite federal highway officials telling states that the guardrails were safe, many states have conducted their own investigations and decided to stop installing them on their roadways. The Times reports that Missouri transportation officials found that an element (the rail head) of the Trinity guardrails "had apparently malfunctioned, in essence turning the rails into spears when cars hit them." Several personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits have been filed, Bloomberg reports.

Citing safety concerns, Missouri, Nevada, and Massachusetts have all barred further installation of the Trinity railheads, but none have mandated that they be removed. The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) maintains that the guardrails are up to snuff; however, a recent memo asked state transportation departments for data on Trinity's guardrails' performance "in the field."

Further investigation may lead to federal probes like the ones launched to investigate why GM failed to disclose defects to federal regulators. If Trinity knew that there was an issue with its 2005 design change, it was obligated by law to inform the FHA.

Federal Lawsuit by Competitor

Meantime, in federal court, the part-owner of one of Trinity's competitors, Joshua Harman, is suing Trinity under the False Claims Act, a federal law which allows a claimant to sue on behalf of the federal government. According to the Dallas Morning News, Harman claims that Trinity knew about allegedly dangerous defects in its guardrails but failed to tell the FHA about them. A spokesman for Trinity called Harman's suit "false and misleading," according to Bloomberg.

If Harman is successful in his suit, Trinity could be forced to pay up to a billion dollars. However, Bloomberg reports that this isn't the first time Trinity has gone to trial on this issue; there was a mistrial in July after a federal judge questioned a company official's "truthfulness while under oath."

Unless Trinity is successful at pushing back the guardrail retrial, jury selection will begin this week, reports the Dallas Morning News.

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