Trinity Industries will no longer have to fend off a $663.4 million judgment against it after the nation’s top court rejected a whistleblower’s bid to revive a 2014 jury verdict accusing the guardrail manufacturer of defrauding the government.
The U.S. Supreme Court Justices declined to hear whistleblower Joshua Harman’s final appeal to leave the dangerous-guardrail judgment intact after it had been tossed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans in 2017, according to Reuters.
Mr. Harman sued Trinity Industries in 2012 under the whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act, alleging that the Texas-based manufacturer defrauded the U.S. government by secretly modifying the design of its ET-Plus guardrail systems, already approved by Federal Highway Administration and installed extensively along U.S. highway and roads.
The unapproved redesign of the Trinity guardrails, Mr. Harman alleged, weakened their ability to function properly under some circumstances. If struck at a particular angle, the end terminal could send the guardrail through the vehicle like a spear instead of crumpling to absorb the shock of an impact. Trinity Industries faces dozens of claims filed by plaintiffs alleging the malfunctioning guardrails caused personal injury and wrongful death.
In 2014 a federal jury in Texas found that Trinity Industries had defrauded the government by selling it unapproved versions of the ET-Plus guardrail. An award of $175 million automatically tripled under the False Claims Act to $525 million. The following year, U.S. District Judge Rodney Gilstrap in Marshall, Texas, added another $138.4 million in civil penalties, which resulted from an assessment of $8,250 per false claim, plus an additional $19 million in legal fees and costs.
Mr. Harman was slated to receive $199 million – 30 percent of the total recovery – as a whistleblower award.
Trinity Industries appealed the judgment to the Fifth Circuit, which reversed the ruling on the basis that the Federal Highway Administration continued to reimburse the company for ET-Plus guardrail systems even with “full knowledge” of Trinity’s claims.
According to Reuters, Mr. Harman’s lawyers expressed disappointment with the Supreme Court’s decision, but was pleased that “the true objective of the case has been achieved.”
“Because of Joshua Harman’s efforts, there is more federal and state scrutiny than ever before to ensure the safety of our nation’s roads and highways,” one of Mr. Harman’s lawyers told Reuters.