A $175 million verdict against a highway guardrail manufacturer accused of defrauding the U.S. government by altering design without prior permission from the Department of Transportation has garnered headlines in recent weeks.
Trinity Industries was accused of changing the end portion of the rails in order to save money, but the changes have reportedly had the effect of posing danger to motorists. While the ends of the guardrails are supposed to deflect the impact of a crash, the allegedly defective ends have resulted in the guardrails acting as a spear, impaling vehicles and causing serious injury and death to those inside.
Recently in Florida, another lawsuit was filed against a different guardrail designer and constructor, as well as the Florida Department of Transportation. Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal was asked to reconsider a denial of summary judgment against the engineering company that designed the rails in Transportation Engineering Inc. v. Cruz et al.
Our Naples injury lawyers understand the key difference between this case and the federal case against Trinity was that in the latter lawsuit, government transportation officials were unaware of the changes made by the designer/supplier of the guardrails. In the Cruz case, state DOT officials approved the updated designs, defective though they may be.
It was for this reason, based on the so-called Slavin Doctrine, based on the 1959 case of Slavin v. Kay, that the appellate court reversed denial of summary judgment against the guardrail engineers.
This does not mean plaintiffs are without remedy. The case against the Florida Department of Transportation is still viable and will proceed. However, the Slavin doctrine allows release of liability for contractors and engineers for injuries sustained by third parties after the work is completed, the owner of the property accepted the work and the defects resulting in injury were open and obvious to the owner.
In this case, the incident that gave rise to the lawsuit was a single-car crash on the Florida Turnpike in 2008. Driver was traveling approximately 10 to 20 miles over the speed limit (at approximately 90 mph), and was reportedly distracted by an in-vehicle DVD movie. The driver lost control and struck an uncushioned guardrail at an emergency crossover in the median. The guardrail end struck the car at the passenger door, impaling it and causing her death.
Her mother, as personal representative of her estate, sued the DOT, which was responsible for erecting and maintaining the guardrail, the company that designed the guardrail and the company that constructed the guardrail. The complaint alleged a breach of duty of care by failure to remedy or warn about a dangerous condition not readily identifiable to the public caused by a defectively-designed and constructed guardrail. Specifically, plaintiff asserted DOT did not provide proper safeguards to prevent vehicle impalement on the end of the guardrail, and did not follow its own guidelines or those set by national safety standards.
The trial court granted summary judgment to the construction contractor on the basis of the Slavin doctrine, but denied it to the engineering firm. The 5th DCA, after lengthy analysis, determined this ruling was improper. The court specifically considered another legal precedent set in Easterday v. Masiello. While Slavin applied initially only to contractors, the Easterday decision expanded application to architects and designers.
Because the DOT was aware of the guardrail design changes at issue in this case and had undisputedly signed off on them, the court found, neither the construction contractor nor the engineers could be held liable for decedent’s death.
The case will now proceed, though the engineers and construction contractor will no longer be parties to the case.
If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at (888) 751-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.
Transportation Engineering Inc. v. Cruz et al, Nov. 7, 2014, Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal
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