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Trinity Guardrails Court Files Must Be Open, Court Rules

Trinity Guardrails Court Files Must Be Open, Court Rules

An image from the Harman v. Trinity complaint.

By Leah Nicholls
Staff Attorney 

Good news! Yesterday, in a high-profile case involving the safety of highway guardrails, Harman v. Trinity, the court ordered that all the court records in the case be made open to the public.

As we’ve explained both on this blog and in our briefing to courts, keeping court documents sealed regarding unsafe products has a real human cost. If corporations are allowed to keep secret the claims against them, gun manufacturers can hide that their guns fire without anyone pulling the trigger and car manufacturers can hide that their cars stall unexpectedly on the highway. There is no question that those secrets have caused people to die.

That’s why the victory for public access is so important in this case. A major highway guardrail manufacturer, Trinity, will not be able to hide the fact that it kept its changed guardrail design from the federal government and that that guardrail design is unsafe. The victory also means that the public has access to facts that will be critical for making the case that the federal government should withdraw its approval of these guardrails. And it’s ammunition for states seeking to phase out and remove these lethal guardrails from our highways.

Trinity was sued for defrauding the federal government by changing the design of its guardrail end terminals, not conducting appropriate crash tests on the new design, and not telling the federal government about the changes—meaning that the guardrails remained on the Federal Highway Administration’s list of approved guardrails. A jury found that Trinity defrauded the government to the tune of $175 million.

Because of the design change, when the terminal is hit by a car, instead of absorbing the energy of the crash and slowing the vehicle, the guardrail jams and turns into a potentially lethal spear. Drivers and their passengers have been decapitated, their limbs have been severed, and they have been stabbed by these guardrails. A study by our client The Safety Institute found that the redesigned Trinity guardrail was 2.86 to 3.95 times more likely to be involved in a lethal accident and 1.36 to 1.95 times more likely to be involved in an accident with serious injury than Trinity’s older design.

In the case against Trinity, huge swaths of court records—including crash test documents—were filed under seal. On behalf of The Safety Institute and the Center for Auto Safety, we sought to intervene to unseal the records. Although our motion to intervene was denied, our efforts to unseal the records helped to convince the court to do the right thing.

We couldn’t be happier with the result, because this is a major victory for the safety of everyone who travels on our nation’s highways.