Highway products manufacturers Trinity Industries, Inc. and Trinity Highway Products, LLC (Trinity) agreed today to pay $5,000,000 to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to settle a qui tam lawsuit brought by an Elias LLC whistleblower client, alleging that Trinity defrauded the Commonwealth of millions of dollars by secretly altering the design of a highway safety product, putting Massachusetts drivers at risk of serious injury and death.
The product at issue is a highway guardrail end terminal, which is affixed to the end of a highway guardrail, and is supposed to blunt the force of collisions with the guardrail and prevent the guardrail from piercing or “spearing” into the colliding vehicle. Per the rules of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), in 2000 Trinity submitted the product design to MassDOT for approval, certifying, among other things, that the design was endorsed and approved by a licensed professional engineer. In 2004, however, Trinity secretly altered the design, making the product materially smaller and narrower at key points, including the guide channel that is supposed to guide the guardrail through the channel and out laterally from the end terminal as it bends from the force of a collision.
According to emails from Trinity executives, the purpose of the design changes were to cut costs, and the executives agreed they would not disclose the changes to regulatory authorities, including MassDOT. Trinity not only failed to notify MassDOT of the changes, it continued to send false design documents of the original product to MassDOT for approval, even after senior MassDOT engineers told Trinity that all design changes had to be disclosed to and approved by MassDOT. The secret design changes rendered the product materially defective and prone to cause the guardrails to lock up on impact and spear the colliding vehicle, potentially causing serious injury to the occupants. Trinity improperly caused contractors to install thousands of these secretly altered and dangerous products onto MassDOT highways and caused the contractors to make thousands of false certifications that the products installed conformed to the approved design.
Massachusetts declined to intervene in the case, and thus Elias LLC – on behalf of the whistleblower, Joshua Harman – prosecuted the case independent of the Commonwealth. Elias LLC developed the above-described evidence through discovery and defeated Trinity’s multiple attempts to have the case dismissed. The parties reached an agreement in principle to settle the case shortly before trial was scheduled to begin. Per the settlement, Massachusetts agreed to award Mr. Harman 29 percent of the settlement amount (a total of $1,450,000).
Read the settlement agreement here.