The metal barriers on the side and middle of our roads were placed there for a very important reason: to minimize the damage and injuries that occur when vehicles careen out of control. While these devices are intended to save lives and reduce injuries, a major manufacturer has shamelessly abused the public trust by skimping on the product’s dimensions in order to save a few bucks on raw materials. Fortunately for victims of vehicular accidents in which these guard rails failed to fulfill the very function for which tax payer dollars were used to purchase them, the faulty guard rail manufacturer is finally being forced to pay the piper.
Minor change makes all the difference
At the heart of this defective product scandal is a seemingly minor change in which the manufacturer shaved an inch of metal off of the “end terminal.” This component is the cap of the rail and is designed to absorb crash impact and then slide along the rail as the vehicle’s momentum abates. Reducing the width of a key metal piece from five inches to four caused these guard rails to stop absorbing the impact and instead to remain inflexible, spearing the front of vehicles. The end result is that these faulty guard rails slice right through the front of vehicles, impaling drivers and amputating their limbs.
Pennywise, but at whose expense?
The guard rail manufacturer, a multibillion dollar publicly traded corporation, saved a paltry $50,000 a year by trimming this inch of metal off its products. Notwithstanding its contentions that this change had no effect on safety, the manufacturer deliberately hid the alteration from federal regulators and the public, with internal communications inexplicably concluding it was legal to “make this change with no announcement.” A far different conclusion was reached in a federal courtroom recently when the judge instructed the culprit to cough up $525 million in damages and an additional $138 million in penalties, representing $8,250 for each of the almost 17,000 “false certifications” made by the manufacturer.
For the victims of accidents in which these guardrails malfunctioned, nine-figure judgments can’t bring back lost limbs. Indeed many of these accidents resulted in drivers’ legs being amputated, with double amputations the outcome of some of these cases. The State of Colorado for its part responded by placing a moratorium on purchasing these guardrails, joining a list of 30 states that have suspended further installation of these deadly devices.