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Brett Emison
Brett Emison
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Missouri: “Ground Zero” in Trinity Guardrail Safety Debate

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Abeln Guardrail

 

Sunday’s Kansas City Star featured an article about the ongoing investigations into Trinity ET-Plus guardrails.  The report emphasized Missouri’s role in the investigation of these deadly guardrail designs.

Missouri has become ground zero for a national debate about whether a widely used highway guardrail system is as safe as it should be, lawyers and safety advocates say.

– Mark Morris at The Kansas City Star

What’s the Problem with Trinity ET-Plus Guardrails?

Guardrail end terminals are supposed to absorb the brunt of an impact and turn the rail itself away from the striking vehicle like a ribbon.  However, in 2005, Trinity secretly began to work on modifications to its ET-Plus, which reduced the width of the guide rail/feeder chute from 5-inches to 4-inches (a 20% reduction).  Trinity made these design changes with no notice to the FHWA or any state governments that purchased the ET-Plus.

These critical changes interfered with the proper deformation of the guardrail.  The ET-Plus’s altered design causes the rail to fold back, turning the rail into a spear that will slice right through a car or truck.

Tens of thousands of these defective guardrails may be in place on highways across Missouri:

By one estimate, as many as 30,000 such guardrails have been installed on Missouri highways over the years.  A recent study, funded in part by the state, found that ET-Plus is much more likely to be involved in fatal accidents than an earlier system.

– The Kansas City Star

If the previous version was safer, then why the changes?  The answer is simple: Money.  An internal Trinity email documented that Trinity could save $2.00 per end terminal by using a 4-inch channel rather than a 5-inch channel.

Trinity Email

Internal Trinity E-mail

Langdon & Emison Clients at Forefront of Issue

One of our Trinity guardrail clients, the family of Bradley Abeln, have been at the forefront of litigating this defect.  Brad Abeln was killed when another vehicle forced his Ford Bronco into the end of a Trinity guardrail.  Instead of blunting the impact and slowing Brad’s vehicle, the defective end terminal caused the guardrail to pushed through the Ford Bronco and into Brad’s driver’s seat.  Brad was thrown from the vehicle and died at the scene.

An end terminal is designed to absorb energy from a crash by sliding along the metal guardrail, extruding the guardrail as it passes to one side, like a flattened ribbon, away from the vehicle.

But a Clay County lawsuit filed on behalf of Abeln’s four young children alleged that undisclosed changes to the design in 2005 made the end terminal prone to “lock up” and bend the guardrail beam unpredictably.

“When the beam locked up, it contacted the driver’s door and drive the driver’s door into the driver’s seat,” said Lexington, Mo., attorney, Kent Emison, who represents Abeln’s children.

Emison filed his lawsuit in June.  By September, the state of Missouri had stopped installation of ET-Plus systems along the state’s highways.

– The Kansas City Star

The Abeln family was also featured on ABC’s 20/20 news program:

Missouri Quick to Act on Defective Guardrails

Not only did Missouri stop installing these defective guardrails, it commissioned a study by the University of Alabama – Birmingham School of Engineering to find out how bad the problem is.  That study found that Trinity ET-Plus guardrails were nearly 4 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than its previous model, the ET-2000.

Missouri can be proud of how quickly it has moved to address this question, Emison said.

“The Missouri Department of Transportation was one of the first state (transportation departments) to recognize this problem, track the problem and take steps to make the roadways safer,” Emison said.

– The Kansas City Star

Trinity Guardrail Lawsuits

There have been numerous lawsuits filed across the country against Trinity Industries due to injuries and deaths stemming from the ET-Plus end terminal.  Kent Emison has been selected to co-chair the AAJ sub-group dedicated to the Trinity guardrail defect.  Kent will conduct the sub-group’s initial meeting at the AAJ Winter Convention in February 2015.  As states continue to evaluate the ET-Plus’s safety performance and new information is learned about Trinity’s fraud, we expect more lawsuits will follow.

In October, a Texas jury slapped Trinity with a $175 million judgment for puportedly defrauding the federal government by secretly changing the design specifications in 2005 without notifying the Federal Highway Administration, which reimburses states for guardrails on federal highway projects.

That judgment triples to $525 million under federal law.

– The Kansas City Star

Though much of the focus has been on Trinity’s secretly re-designed 4-inch ET-Plus model, the 5-inch ET-Plus is not necessarily a safer design.  Both the 4-inch and 5-inch version of the ET-Plus have substantial deviations from the original ET-2000 end terminal, which make both versions of the ET-Plus more dangerous than the original design.

One example: in both versions of the ET-Plus, the exit gap – the area through which the flattened guardrail exits the terminal away from the striking vehicle – was narrowed from 2-inches to 1-inch.  Why is this important?  During a collision, a vehicle can push the end terminal down the guardrail and reach a joint where two sections of rail have been joined.  These joints are held together by four 1.5-inch bolts.  In both ET-Plus designs, the 1.5-inch bolts will not feed through the 1-inch exit gap.  The bolts will cause the guardrail to jam inside the end terminal resulting in a catastrophic failure of the system.

Langdon & Emison continues to investigate Trinity guardrail injuries and deaths across the country.  Contact our office for a free evaluation of your case.

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© Copyright 2014 Brett A. Emison

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