Trinity Guardrail Whistle-Blower Case Results in Mistrial

Trinity Industries Inc.’s courtroom defense of the safety of its highway guardrails prompted a federal judge to declare a mistrial after “serious concerns” arose about a company witness’s truthfulness.

U.S. District Judge Rodney Gilstrap in Marshall, Texas, ruled yesterday that both sides of the whistle-blower trial, through “sharp practices or inadvertent error,” created an environment in which the jury couldn’t reach a fair verdict.

As much as $1 billion is at stake in the case, a company lawyer said in May. Trinity is accused of making secret, money-saving changes to one of its highway guardrail products that caused them to impale rather than slow vehicles.

Gilstrap cited questions over whether the president of the company’s Trinity Highway Products unit tried to intimidate a witness or committed perjury, according to a transcript provided by lawyers for the plaintiff. The transcript wasn’t immediately available from the court.

“With regards to the allegations about Gregg Mitchell, president of Trinity Highway Products LLC, they are completely untrue and we will prove this in court,” the company said in an e-mailed statement.

The judge said he’ll set a new trial date when he meets with lawyers for a conference on Aug. 18.

About two hours of testimony remained yesterday when the judge declared the mistrial, according to Nicholas Gravante Jr., a lawyer for the plaintiff with Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP.

“We’re anxious to get this trial retried as expeditiously as possible,” he said.

Shock Absorber

Joshua Harman, of Swords Creek, Virginia, sued Trinity, one of the biggest guardrail makers in the U.S., alleging it changed the design of one of its products without telling federal authorities. Trinity modified what’s called an energy-absorbing end terminal, a steel mechanism mounted on the end of a guardrail, Harman claimed. Instead of acting like a shock absorber when hit by a car, the revised version locks up and behaves more like a giant shiv, according to Harman.

Trinity has said the allegations are “false and misleading.”

In 2011 Trinity sued Harman, who once ran companies that made and installed guardrail systems, for patent infringement relating to its end terminal. The lawsuit was resolved with a confidential settlement. Trinity also sued Harman twice for defamation, stemming partly from a public website Harman owns and updates with photos from hundreds of crash sites involving allegedly defective Trinity terminals. Trinity voluntarily dropped both suits.

There are at least nine personal-injury and wrongful-death lawsuits pending against Trinity.

The case is Joshua Harman, on behalf of the U.S. v. Trinity Industries Inc., 2:12-cv-00089, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Texas (Marshall).

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