In an interesting and unique False Claims Act case, a federal contractor tasked with performing construction and updates on interstate highways is being forced to defend against claims that it submitted fraudulent designs for approval and false claims to the government. The case made it all the way to trial, and will be unfolding before federal District Court Judge Rodney Gilstrap this week. The case marks an intriguing deviation from the oft-reported healthcare fraud cases and serves as a reminder that fraud against the government can emerge in virtually any industry.
Background of Case Against Trinity Industries, et al.
Trinity Industries, along with subsidiary Trinity Highway Products, was forced to engage in False Claims Act litigation following the filing of a whistleblower complaint by one of its former employees, Joshua Harmon. In the complaint, the relator alleges that Trinity submitted one set of plans for the installation of guardrails to the Federal Highway Administration, but ended up modifying those plans and implementing a different design. As required by FHWA guidelines, modifications to pre-approved highway designs are subject to review and approval by the FHWA to ensure the new designs meet safety guidelines and federal regulations. Allegedly, Trinity did not follow this protocol and installed the modified versions without FHWA authorization. The subsequent billing to the federal government for payment of the guardrails– which were allegedly contrary to the plans previously submitted– triggered alleged False Claims Act liability.
Excerpts From the Trial
The government opted not to intervene in this case, thereby allowing the individual relator to continue against Trinity on his own. As is protocol, the plaintiff-relator was given the opportunity to make opening statements first, beginning with a succinct summation of the pivotal issue: “In 2005, Trinity manufactured the head, changed the design of the head without disclosing it to the Federal Highway Administration as it is lawfully required to do.”
The defendant quickly countered this assertion by remarking that “[t]his product is on the nation’s highways because it’s approved for federal reimbursement by the Federal Highway Administration.”
From there, the relator began to recount his experiences with the guardrail products, explaining how he noticed the alleged issues with the installations. Specifically, the relator discussed his concerns regarding several accidents involving the guardrails– noticing that the involved drivers should have been better protected:
“I had started making (observations) of some accident sites we were repairing….I noticed the accidents. I started reviewing accidents and photographing and detailing looking at the accident sites that hadn’t been repaired. That’s when I determined the four-inch (channel) wasn’t working properly. They were failing far more than the five inch.”
From there, allegations flew back and forth– with the defense arguing that the relator only wanted to advance his claim in order to enter the guardrail market as a competitor. However, the relator testified that he brought the issues to the attention of the defendant on several occasions, to no avail. It was then that he decided to file a whistleblower complaint against the company for allegedly submitting an invoice to the federal government for guardrails that did not comport with approved designs.
To date, the government has paid over $218 million to Trinity for this project.
Contact a Whistleblower Attorney Today
If you are aware of fraud under a government contract, you may be able to commence a whistleblower lawsuit for damages. As the facts of the above case illustrate– fraud and false claims can place citizens in physical danger. For more information, contact Berger Montague today.