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Trinity - NYT Test Video
Click to view video of crash testing

Virginia has become the first state to sue Trinity Industries over thousands of secretly redesigned, improperly tested, and potential deadly guardrail systems.  Virginia’s suit follows an October whistleblower trial in which a federal jury found Trinity had defrauded the federal government of $175 million – which is tripled under the law to $525 million.  “It is shocking that a company would think they could secretly modify a safety device in a way that may actually pose a threat to Virginia motorists,” said Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.

In related news, Trinity has finally begun testing its ET-Plus guardrail system as required by the Federal Highway Administration after details of Trinity’s secret design change came to light during the whistleblower trial.  As I noted earlier, Trinity did not allow the public or the media to attend its testing.  Nevertheless, the New York Times was able to obtain aerial footage of the initial crash test.

“Conducting a test in which the vehicle strikes the ET-Plus at 5-degrees is the optimal angle for determining the worst possible result from a crash,” said Adam Graves, a Langdon & Emison attorney investigating Trinity guardrail cases.  “At 15-degrees, the striking vehicle typically does not fully engage with the end terminal and, instead, races past the guardrail on impact, which doesn’t test the actual performance of the ET-Plus.”

Trinity began its testing at an impact angle that it was most likely to pass.  The 15-degree striking angle is unrealistic and designed to ensure the guardrail passed the test without serious intrusion into the vehicle.  As you can see in the video (and the still frame above), the angle of impact causes the vehicle to merely glance off of the guardrail.

At wider angles of impact (generally 10-degrees or more), the end terminal simply gates open and the vehicle passes by without really engaging the end terminal or the guardrail itself.  You can see in the vehicle this is exactly what happened.  The end terminal (the potentially deadly re-design) is not engaged down the rail as you can see there is no ribbon of flattened guardrail exiting the end terminal.  For this reason, the test was essentially meaningless for evaluating the defect.

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.

Why the change?  Money.  Trinity said it saved about $2.00 per end terminal, resulting in $50,000 in savings per year.

Trinity Email
Internal Trinity Email


Trinity Guardrail Lawsuits

Trinity - JKE - 20-20
Kent Emison discusses Trinity Guardrail failures on ABC’s 20/20 news program

A study by the University of Alabama-Birmingham in conjunction with The Safety Institute and the Missouri Highway and Transportation Commission found the ET-Plus performed more poorly than other guardrail end terminals.  The UAB study looked at 8 years of data in Missouri and Ohio involving five different end terminal designs.  The study concluded that the Trinity ET-Plus “placed motorists at a higher risk of both serious injury and death relative to its predecessor, the ET-2000.”

There have been numerous lawsuits filed across the country against Trinity due to injuries and deaths involving the ET-Plus end terminal.  Langdon & Emison represents a number of clients across the country in cases involving defective Trinity guardrails.  As states continue to evaluate the guardrail’s performance and new information is learned about Trinity’s fraud, more lawsuits will follow.

Kent Emison has been selected to co-chair the American Association for Justice 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.

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© Copyright 2014 Brett A. Emison

Follow @BrettEmison on Twitter.

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