The purpose of highway guardrails along a highway is to keep individuals or vehicles from straying off the roadway and into dangerous or off-limits areas, such as ditches, rivers or clusters of trees. However, a series of crashes in Florida and throughout the country revealed the defective design and poor placement of some of these barriers posed a heightened risk to motor vehicle occupants – resulting in one instance of a $663 million penalty against the manufacturer of the dangerous guardrails.
The Fort Lauderdale car accident attorneys at The Ansara Law Firm know that these kinds of scenarios, while not as common as your typical rear-end collision, are important to underscore because poor road design is shown to contribute to a significant number of fatal crashes in the U.S. – as many as half, by some research estimates. Sometimes it’s faulty a guardrail. Sometimes it’s the lack of signage or a dangerous curve or pothole.
Claims involving poor road design – including defective guardrails – are more complex than most injury lawsuits because they are filed against government agencies and contractors. They may be subject to tighter notice restrictions, must overcome defenses of sovereign immunity and damages are capped at $200,000 per person and $300,000 per incident. Contractors may not necessarily have the same protections, but derivative sovereign immunity will depend on whether the contractor was acting under the authority and direction of the government. If so, they may be shielded by the government contractor defense, though this is generally at the federal level.
Because these claims tend to involve complicated legal issues, it’s best to consult with an experienced injury lawyer in Fort Lauderdale who understands not just injury law but also contract law and government liability.Why Defective Guardrails Are So Dangerous
The most high-profile dangerous guardrail case in recent memory was brought by a whistleblower engineer who alleged a Texas-based company quietly made a series of design changes to the guardrail systems it was selling to the federal government.
Specifically, the changes were made to a component called the energy-absorbing terminal, which is the end portion of the guardrail usually marked with black-and-yellow stripes. This piece is supposed to absorb energy and slow the speed of a vehicle that is crashing.
What was alleged in U.S. ex rel. Harman v. Trinity Industries, Inc. was that defendant, one of the largest suppliers of guardrails to the federal government, gained approval for this end terminal design in 2000, but then changed them sometime between 2002 and 2005 – without informing the government. The change made the devices cheaper to manufacturer, but they also made them dangerous. Instead of acting as a shock absorber, plaintiffs alleged, they were acting like a giant shiv.
The issue came to light after numerous serious and fatal car accidents. At least five deaths and dozens of severe personal injuries were blamed on this defective design, prompting several states to ban any new installation of the devices. Dozens of lawsuits followed.
While the whistleblower lawsuit centered on the company’s alleged fraud against the government (for which it was ultimately deemed liable), claims filed directly by those injured were based on allegations of defective design.
Other injury cases involving dangerous guardrails focused on the installation of the devices. For example in Florida, one guardrail injury lawsuit alleged the state department of transportation was liable for the loss of a man’s leg after he crashed into a guardrail he said was negligently installed. The lawsuit alleged plaintiff swerved off the road to avoid an animal and crashed into the guardrail. But rather than deflecting him, the guardrail cut through the car, severing plaintiff’s left leg.
The U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Florida granted summary judgment to the manufacturer, Trinity, after finding the guardrail end piece had been replaced with a random part by a FDOT employee after an earlier crash destroyed the old one. The case against the state proceeded.Damages in Defective Guardrail Accidents
Whether such claims are for product liability or poor road design or negligent installation or improper maintenance, our injury attorneys in Fort Lauderdale know such cases will require extensive investigation and resources. It’s important that such cases be handled with care, though, because injuries are often severe.
Damages in these cases may include:
- Medical expenses;
- Lost wages;
- Pain and suffering;
- Loss of consortium;
- Wrongful death.
If you suspect a faulty guardrail – or any other roadway defect – may have played a role in your crash or the severity of your injuries, contact our attorneys know to learn more about how we can help.
If you or a loved one has been injured in a Fort Lauderdale car accident, contact the personal injury attorneys at The Ansara Law Firm by calling (954) 761-4011 or toll-free at (888) ANSARA-8.