Guardrail investigation: Judge unseals records

The public got a big win Tuesday in the whistleblower guardrail case after a federal judge in East Texas ruled to unseal the court records and exhibits from the trial.  The public may also get access to hundreds of confidential documents sealed by the court. 

Trinity Industries of Dallas, which manufactures the controversial guardrail system, argued against unsealing those records because of trade secrets and business concerns, but the judge ruled in favor of the public's right to know. 

An army of Trinity lawyers left the Marshall courthouse quietly, making no comment.  That was not the case for the whistleblower's team and an attorney with Public Justice.

“It's a great day, a great, great day,” said Leslie Bruechner.  Bruechner was in East Texas from California arguing for the release of the records. 

“This is a tremendous day for the First Amendment,” Breuchner said.  “The court is basically embraced the First Amendment in his ruling. He has recognized this is a case of enormous importance and he is unsealing everything done at trial and everything in the court record.”

In October 2014, an East Texas jury found Trinity defrauded the federal government for failing to disclose design changes to the ET-Plus.  Victims claim in lawsuits that those changes caused horrific accidents, including several in Texas.

After the verdict, the Federal Highway Administration, or F.H.W.A., ordered new crash tests and just last month, the government gave the first four tests a passing grade. But an eighth test is raising safety concerns after aerial footage showed damage to the driver's door.

Now, there's more heat coming from Capitol Hill.  Six U.S. senators are now requesting a government investigation of the F.H.W.A.  In a letter, the senators say they are concerned about the F.H.W.A's evaluation of the ET-Plus.

Attorney George Carpinello says there needs to be more transparency with the government. He applauds the judge's decision.

“Congressmen, senators, the public and the press are all asking why,” Carpinello said.  “In asking these questions, they want to see what was the testimony at this trial because this jury obviously came back with a very different conclusion.  We were not able to show it to them because Trinity has designated virtually everything as confidential.  So it is an excellent win for the public.”

Both sides also argued about liability in court. The judge had ordered everyone to mediation, but they could not reach a settlement. 

The whistleblower is asking for a judgment of about $730 million.  Trinity told the judge no judgment is proper.  Trinity maintains the safety device is crashworthy and meets the federal safety criteria.