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Important Highway Guardrail Safety Information Set Free in Landmark Consumer Safety Win

Important Highway Guardrail Safety Information Set Free in Landmark Consumer Safety Win

Image from the Harman v. Trinity complaint.

By Leah M. Nicholls
Staff Attorney

Highway guardrails are big business. And they are also important safety devices: The wrong guardrail design can mean the difference between life and death, between walking away from a car crash and losing a leg. But one of the biggest guardrail manufacturers, Trinity Industries, Inc., has been trying to hide key facts about the safety of its most popular guardrail by blocking public access to court records in a huge whistleblower suit down in Texas that yielded a multimillion dollar verdict against the company.

We’ve been fighting to unseal those records for over a year, and Trinity has been fighting tooth and nail every step of the way. But guess what? In what is great news for anyone who cares about the safety of our nation’s roadways, those records are now finally available for public review because the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit just rejected Trinity’s request to keep the documents secret.

This is big news, because the case literally involves a matter of life and death. The whistleblower who filed the suit alleged that the company had lied to the federal government about secret changes to guardrail design of its guardrail end terminal that effectively turned the guardrail into a lethal spear that can pierce a vehicle and its occupants. Trinity lost after a jury trial, and was ordered to pay $663 million for its cover-up. That decision is currently on appeal. (To hear from some of the victims and to see how the design problems impact the guardrail’s performance, check out this ABC story.) 

But meanwhile, while the suit was still pending, hundreds of Trinity’s documents were filed under seal with the consent of both parties, even though they may contain key information about the safety of the defective guardrail.

Because information about the guardrail re-design is so important to public safety, Public Justice intervened in the case on behalf of two safety groups for the purpose of getting those records unsealed: The Safety Institute and the Center for Auto Safety. 

The trial court denied our motion to intervene, but it ordered Trinity to defend the sealing of its records. Ultimately, Trinity failed to justify the secrecy, and the court ordered the records unsealed. True to form, Trinity appealed that decision, and also asked the court of appeals to stay the district court’s order unsealing the records, arguing that once the cat’s out of the bag, it can’t be put back in. But the court of appeals just refused, explaining that Trinity was unlikely to prevail on its argument that the documents should remain sealed, so a stay wasn’t justified. Earlier this week, Trinity was permitted to withdraw its appeal. That means that the district court’s order unsealing the records stands.

The upshot? All the information about Trinity’s guardrail end terminal will soon be available for public view—access that will certainly be helpful not only to safety advocacy groups, but also to federal and state regulators trying to figure out whether the end terminal is safe to keep on the road.

This is a big loss for corporations who seek to hide their wrongdoing in secret court filings and a big win for access to information about the safety of products that we encounter every day.