FOX19 Investigates: Whistleblower says guardrail company chose ' - Cincinnati News, FOX19-WXIX TV

FOX19 Investigates: Whistleblower says guardrail company chose 'profit over life'

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) -

An analysis of the risks posed to Tri-State drivers by modified guardrail ends shows “a higher exposure than what I've seen,” said Joshua Harman, a whistleblower on the issue. Harman just won a suit against the makers of a modified guardrail head, blamed for more than 1,000 deaths and injuries to drivers nationwide.

Harman sued Trinity Industries, the makers of the ET-PLUS, claiming the company secretly modified the device and never told the Federal Highway Administration about the changes. The FHWA regulates and approves highway safety devices. Any change must be crash tested and certified for use on the nation's highways. Any change to approved designs must be retested and recertified by the government.

The ET-PLUS is a guardrail end terminal designed to absorb impacts and to keep guardrails from impaling vehicles.

‘PROFIT OVER LIFE'

“They're more concerned with profit over life,” Harman said during an interview Oct. 23. We flew Harman into Cincinnati to get his expert opinion on the end terminals in the area.

“Right across the street there's another one. They're everywhere. There's two within sight from where I'm standing,” Harman said as he stood in a crash site on Ronald Reagan Highway. In a crash that happened on Oct. 14, a driver hit a modified ET-PLUS that kicked her car back into traffic. Four vehicles were damaged in the crash.

The head locked up on the guardrail, which it's not designed to do.

"When it locked up--it flipped this out this way and it put the car back out in traffic that way. That's not what's supposed to happen," Harman explained.

Rob Tritschler was involved in that crash and he said he's surprised it didn't end worse.

“This lady was veering off the road and I did what I could to avoid her. She veered off the road and hit head on into the guardrail and spun right out in the street," Tritschler said. He was rear-ended as he slammed on brakes to miss the crash.

Tritschler said the car that hit the guardrail nearly took him out. “Couple of feet. I almost hit her dead on. I knew it was going to end up badly, I'm surprised everyone walked away,” Tritschler said.

Harman alleged during the whistleblower trial that the changes Trinity made to the ET-PLUS caused the ends to fail and are directly responsible for impalements that have injured and killed more than 1,000 people nationwide. Harman admits he doesn't know Trinity's exact reasons for changing the originally approved design, but said it's obvious it had to do with money.

‘WE COULD MAKE THIS CHANGE WITH NO ANNOUNCEMENT'

An email from the court filing shows Harman's assertion could be accurate. An email chain between Trinity employees from Nov. 9, 2004 shows conversations between employees about saving money by trimming material used to build the ET-PLUS. The email also discusses keeping the changes a secret.

The email appears to have originated from Trinity Industries official, Steve Brown. In an email Brown sent two other employees he wrote, “I'd like to start pushing to change [sic] the ET to the 4” channel. How much weight do we save/each and what would be the cost savings/each (assume $.25 steel)?

One of the men who received the email and responded was Wade Malizia, the plant manager for Trinity Highway Products' Plant 31 in Girard, Ohio. Malizia responded with figures to show the company would save 8.01 pounds per ET-PLUS, which the email shows, would amount to $2 per unit.

The email shows Brown responded to Malizia's email with figures to show the company would “get a better ET,” and “we'll save a few bucks.” Brown wrote in the email, “If Wade's numbers are good, we would save $2/ET. That's $50,000/year and $250,000 in 5 years by using the 4” channel for the legs.”

Brown mentions what he perceives as other benefits of the change: lighter for side impacts, stronger welds, more “mistake proof” welds and a closer fit between the head and the guardrail.

“I'm feeling that we could make this change with no announcement,” Brown wrote, “We did pretty good with the TRACC changes."

But, Harman said the real benefits from the changes would be the inability of states to reuse the ET-PLUS after crashes, "The real financial gain to them was, in every accident with these modified changes, it rendered the head useless and they sold a new head in every accident."

Reusability, Harman said, was the key selling point for the original ET-PLUS and a benefit that save tax payers millions.

"Fraud was committed--it was committed on the American public,” Harman said. “They represented at trial that these changes meant nothing, knowing they meant the difference between life and death."

READ PART ONE: Whistleblower calls guardrails deadly

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