Lobbyists, Money, and the Trinity Guardrail Case
Trinity Industries (“Trinity”) designs and manufactures highway guardrails, among various other products. Specifically, it sells guardrails to state governments, who then install them on local highways.
Allegations of safety defects have dogged the company in recent years. In fact, it has faced, and continues to face, litigation in several states, including several wrongful death lawsuits. The reasoning behind the lawsuits steps from the fact that the company decided to use cheaper materials to construct its guardrails, resulting in serious and sometimes fatal injuries to drivers.
How Guardrails Work
Guardrails are important highway safety devices. In addition to keeping your car from weaving or sliding off the road in case of a side impact, they are designed to protect the occupants of a vehicle, even if it crashes head-on into the pointy end of the guardrail. A properly functioning guardrail will fold up like an accordion, peeling metal along the sides of a vehicle while slowing it to a controlled stop.
The Allegations Against Trinity
According to allegations, Trinity’s ET Plus guardrail end terminal incorporates a dangerous design flaw. Reportedly, in some cases of head-on collisions, occupants of the vehicle have been killed when the guardrail, instead of peeling away, punctured the vehicle and the occupant like a spear.
According to litigants and critics, Trinity switched to an unsafe design in 2005 to save money, but did not properly test the new product. Also, they failed to inform its state government customers of the design change.
University of Alabama researchers published a study asserting that the design change triples the risk of death compared to the old model and significantly increases the chance of injury. Trinity denies that its guardrails are unsafe, but has publicly acknowledged that it provided misleading information to state governments regarding its design of the EP Plus.
Over 30 states have suspended the installation of the ET Plus on state highways, according to the New York Times. A federal whistleblower lawsuit filed in Texas in 2012 returned a verdict against Trinity that could exceed $1 billion in damages that will be shared between the federal government and the whistleblower plaintiff. In 2014, Virginia Attorney General, Matt Herring, filed a lawsuit against Trinity under the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act.
The Lobbying Campaign
Shortly after the Texas whistleblower lawsuit was filed, Trinity unleashed an army of lobbyists upon various state attorneys general. Financial contributions from Trinity to political associations and reelection campaigns have increased markedly in recent years.
Since the Texas lawsuit was filed, Trinity has:
- donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to both the Democratic and the Republican State Attorneys General Association
- donated money to the political campaigns of attorneys general candidates in at least ten different states
Although Trinity does not claim that these funds are intended to directly influence decision-making on the guardrail issue, large campaign donors are commonly granted access to many invitation-only donor events that provide opportunities for face-to-face meetings with state attorneys general outside the public eye.
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