Most people give little thought to the guardrails that line countless highways throughout Florida and across the U.S. The purpose of these devices is to deflect vehicle occupants from careening into opposite lanes of traffic, off dangerous hillsides or from overturning. They aren’t 100 percent effective and they won’t usually prevent crashes, but they are intended to minimize the overall impact.
Unfortunately, several companies that make the rails have reportedly undertaken a cost-saving design measure that appears to have endangered public safety. Several different lawsuits against at least two major manufacturers of the devices allege designs were altered so that the edges are no longer cushioned or flat. This has reportedly resulted in the steel rails becoming “spear-like,” impaling vehicles rather than softening the blow, causing severe injuries and even deaths.
One of the largest manufacturers, Trinity Industries Inc., just lost a $175 million federal lawsuit alleging it changed the designs without the required approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Several more injury and wrongful death lawsuits against the company are pending, and 30 states have prohibited new installation of guardrails made by this company.
Our Fort Lauderdale injury lawyers know Florida is not among those 30 states. However, that does not mean we are without problems here on this issue. In fact, one pending lawsuit alleges a problem with guardrails on the Florida Turnpike, although those devices were ordered and owned by the Florida Department of Transportation and designed/built by one of Trinity’s competitors, Transportation Engineering Inc.
In TEI v. Cruz, the mother of a woman killed in a single-car crash on the Florida Turnpike asserts the guardrail caused her daughter’s death by impaling the vehicle after the speeding driver lost control and veered off the road.
Similar to the cases pending against Trinity, the Cruz lawsuit alleges those involved in the traffic engineering process sought to save money by cutting corners – literally. Rather than paying for the more expensive – and reportedly safer – cushioned guardrail ends, FDOT ordered the uncushioned guardrail end pieces. In so doing, the lawsuit alleges, FDOT breached its duty of care by failing to remedy or warn the public of a latent dangerous condition. Plus, plaintiffs assert, the agency failed to follow both national standards and its own for guardrails situated at emergency crossover sites.
What’s different about this case is the engineering and construction firm, both named as defendants, received FDOT approval for the modified end pieces before they were built. (The crux of the argument against Trinity was that it did not obtain the approval of federal traffic officials.)
For this reason, the appellate panel for the Fifth District Court of Appeal rejected the argument the engineer or construction firm could be held accountable.
The primary basis for this ruling was the 1959 Florida Supreme Court decision of Slavin v. Kay, in which justices ruled contractors couldn’t be liable for design defects that caused injury so long as the work was finished and the design defects were known or apparent to the owner at the time the work was accepted. Although Slavin didn’t initially allow for release of liability for engineers, subsequent case law established engineers should be included in this group.
The ruling does not mean plaintiff will be unable to collect or pursue damages. First of all, she did already collect the policy limit from the insurer of the at-fault driver. Beyond that, she can continue to pursue action against FDOT; just not the engineering or construction companies.
As these cases gain traction and continue to garner headlines, we suspect more such lawsuits will be filed in coming years.
Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights.
TEI v. Cruz, Nov. 7, 2014, Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal
More Blog Entries:
Antico v. Sindt Trucking – Evidence of Distraction Sought in Florida Trucking Crash Case, Oct. 30, 2014, Fort Lauderdale Crash Lawyer Blog