In a recent False Claims Act case out of Texas, industrial guardrail manufacturer Trinity Industries, Inc. is facing significant liability stemming from allegations it secretly altered its production and design of guardrails along national highways, resulting in catastrophic injuries and death for entangled motorists. More specifically, this case highlights an alleged cover-up by the defendant of its plans to modify designs submitted to the federal government for approval prior to installation along national roadways. This case takes an interesting look at the application of the FCA to a lesser-known area of the law: traffic and highway safety.
Details of United States ex rel. Joshua Harman v. Trinity Industries Inc. et al.
All guardrail systems installed along national roadways must be inspected and approved by the Federal Highway Administration. Before any product is placed on a national highway, it must undergo rigorous and extensive testing for safety, particularly upon impact. The guardrail in question, the ET-Plus, was originally submitted for approval in January of 2000 and subsequently placed along roadways across the United States. According to the complaint, the whistleblower asserts that the original ET-Plus design was not only highly successful upon initial impact but could also withstand additional impacts occurring in the course of a vehicular collision.
According to allegations, Trinity began installing an alternative model of the ET-Plus in 2005 without submitting the changed plans to the Federal Highway Administration for approval. The altered version allegedly causes an unsafe diversion of energy during accidents, causing the guardrail to “double over” on itself and actually sever the oncoming vehicle. This protrusion of the guardrail into the cabin of the vehicle has allegedly led to several fatalities and hundreds of injuries which may not have occurred with the safer, approved design. According to the relator’s complaint, Trinity presumably began installing this alternative design in order to save money on manufacturing costs by using a shorter 4” channel, as opposed to the 5” channel represented in the original approved design.
Application of the False Claims Act
In most FCA cases, the relator is seeking to reimburse taxpayers for money spent by the government pursuant to fraudulent contracts or healthcare invoices. However, the FCA also addresses fraudulent submissions for approval to federal agencies. In this case, the relator alleged that Trinity used fraudulent statements and misrepresentations about its ET-Plus design to induce the Federal Highway Administration to approve the product. Thereafter, the government necessarily implored the assistance of contractors to install the guardrails, thereby wasting government money.
The False Claims Act Can Save Lives
The above case illustrates the true power of the FCA and the type of fraud it can potentially discontinue when successful. The whistleblower’s original complaint in federal district court contains several alarming pictures of whole guardrails skewing through the entire length of a vehicle, including one picture of a vehicle with a completely halved front end. Without the protections afforded by the False Claims Act, the relator could not address these issues and potentially put a stop to the use of faulty, defective, and dangerous products.
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