SULLIVAN COUNTY, TN (WJHL) –A Sullivan County man is suing a Texas company claiming a specific part of a guardrail led to his mother’s death in a 2008 traffic crash, a claim the company denies.
The son of Sabrena Carrier is the plaintiff in a lawsuit against Trinity Highway Products, LLC and others. The lawsuit claims Trinity’s ET Plus End Terminal failed because of a design flaw when Carrier’s SUV hit the terminal on the morning of December 17, 2008 on Highway 394 near Blountville, Tennessee.
Instead of sliding along a track pushing the guardrail away from the on-coming vehicle, the lawsuit claims the ET Plus End Terminal failed and the “guardrail did in fact penetrate the passenger compartment, striking Ms. Carrier’s torso and causing her to suffer serious and fatal injuries.”
Crash scene photos show the metal guardrail embedded in the car, pushing the driver’s seat into the back of the passenger compartment.
Carrier died later that day at Bristol Regional Medical Center. The Sullivan County EMS paramedic was survived by her 14 year-old son, her mother, and the man to whom she was engaged to be married.
“It was devastating,” said Mark Vance, the former Sullivan County EMS Director who hired Carrier. “She was everything to her son and to her mother, to her fiance’ and her co-workers, to everyone really. And all of us are still working through the pain of her death every day.”
Vance spoke to News Channel 11 with the approval of the Carrier family whose attorney said he could not comment for this report.
The Carrier lawsuit is one of at least eight similar lawsuits naming Trinity Highway Products and the ET Plus End Terminal.
A spokesman for Trinity Industries said the ET Plus End Terminal is the most tested end terminal in the industry, and he said no court has ever ruled that the ET Plus End Terminal or any of its products are unsafe. “No one, us included, wants anyone to be injured when they hit a guardrail,” said Jeff Eller, Trinity spokesman. “But it is important to note guardrails are designed to make a bad crash less severe. That’s why crash circumstances really do matter. Those circumstances include speed, road condition, the vehicle involved, the state of the driver and many other factors. Until you have looked at all of those, it is very difficult to say, any guardrail failed to do what it was designed to do.”
Eller gave News Channel 11 what he says is a sworn affidavit from a TDOT engineer about the Carrier case. In the affidavit, the engineer said under oath he believed Carrier hit the guardrail from behind the end plate, that it wasn’t a direct hit the ET Plus End Terminal was designed to take.
Carrier’s case is still moving through the Sullivan County court system.
Allegations of fraud
Since 2000, Trinity sold thousands of the ET Plus safety products to states across the nation. But in 2005, the Federal Highway Administration says Trinity made a modification in the ET Plus end terminal by narrowing a metal channel behind the metal end plate. FHWA said the company failed to tells its customers about the modification.
A federal court ruled Trinity committed fraud by not disclosing the modification, and the Attorney General of Virginia then sued Trinity demanding the company bear the financial burden for the replacement of the modified ET Plus End Terminals.
“They need to comply with the rules,” Attorney General Mark Herring told News Channel 11. “Trinity needs to be the one to be financially responsible for any harm. One of my goals is to make sure taxpayers aren’t left holding the bag.”
Carrier’s family and others claim the modified guardrail end terminal failed because of the modification.
Trinity spokesman Jeff Eller said the company continues to deny it ever committed fraud.
New Federal crash tests
After learning about the undisclosed modification, states across the nation including Tennessee and Virginia removed the ET Plus End Terminal from their “approved products list.”
Then late last year, the Federal Highway Administration ordered Trinity to conduct new crash testing on the modified ET Plus End Terminal. In March, the government said the modified terminal passed all eight safety inspections. FHWA says it continues to review data and is assessing the “scale and scope” of a survey of crash data involving all end terminals including the ET Plus.
News Channel 11’s investigation found neither Virginia nor Tennessee’s Departments of Transportation are able to say for sure where the ET Plus modified end terminals are located along their state-maintained roads. TDOT estimates about 10,000 of the modified ET Plus terminals were installed statewide.
TDOT did confirm that the end terminal that replaced the one where Sabrena Carrier crashed was the same ET Plus end terminal her family says led to her death.
TDOT’s chief engineer says there currently isn’t enough data to support any further action regarding the use of the ET Plus end terminals.
“We didn’t see any evidence that showed they were performing any differently than other similar guardrail units manufactured by other entities,” Paul Degges said. Degges said it would cost Tennessee approximately $2,500 to replace each modified ET Plus end terminal. “If I go in and spend the money to replace 10,000 pieces of guardrail end terminals across the state, there’s a pretty hefty price tag. And if I can’t prove that I have a safety issue associated with it, it’s going to be hard for me to recover those costs.”
The Federal Highway Administration continues to collect data about end terminals on guardrails nationwide, and the Virginia Department of Transportation says it has a replacement plan for the ET Plus end terminals. As government agencies and courts of law across the nation continue to decide their next step, Sabrena Carrier’s family and friends wait for the resolution of a two year old lawsuit. “Losing a life because of a mistake of a patent? It’s crazy,” Mark Vance said. “Somebody should be held accountable. They just hope that whatever was a contributing factor to her death that it will be resolved, that no one will ever lose their life that way.”
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