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Guardrail maker found guilty of defrauding US

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Posted at 2:16 PM, Oct 21, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-22 04:44:53-04

A federal jury ruled against Trinity Industries Inc. in a suit brought by a whistleblower, issuing a judgment that the highway guardrail manufacturer defrauded the government.

The jury found the Dallas, Texas-based company liable for for failing to inform a highway agency about changes it made to the guardrail system, and the company may need to pay $525 million in damages to the U.S. government.

The lawsuit was filed by former industry business owner Josh Harman on behalf of the American public.

The Marshall, Texas jury ruled Monday that Trinity is liable for violating the False Claims Act, according to court records. The jury said those violations caused the U.S. government to incur $175 million in damages as it reimbursed states for thousands of Trinity’s energy-absorbing guardrails, according to Reuters.

Under the False Claims Act, the damages award triples.

Trinity reduced the size of a metal piece in the energy-absorbing cap on the ends of guardrail segments in order to save $50,000 a year, according to internal documents obtained by ABC News

After the ruling, Trinity released a statement saying the company “"believes the decision cannot and will not withstand legal scrutiny," and added it "strongly believes the courts will affirm its position."

A recent study showed that the model in question in the lawsuit, Trinity’s ET-Plus, is more dangerous than the previous model, the ET-2000. 

The study found that the ET-Plus guardrail end terminal, manufactured by Trinity Industries, is 1.36 times more likely to produce a severe injury and 2.86 times more likely to produce death than the older model manufactured by Trinity, the ET-2000.

Lawsuits against Trinity brought by crash survivors and victims of families killed in guardrail accidents are pending.

The lawsuits claim alterations the Dallas-based company made to their ET-Plus guardrails are responsible for four deaths and 10 injuries in several states, including Texas, Tennessee, Florida and Virginia.

In this type of guardrail, the terminal head is supposed to take the impact and slow down the vehicle. The railing is supposed to channel through the head and pigtail out the side — away from the car. But, there has been accident after accident where the railing gets jammed up and often pierces the vehicle like a spear that cuts through the cars and sometimes people in its way.

A safety evaluation of the guardrails, installed in all 50 states, is ongoing, according to the Federal Highway Administration.