Thousands of potentially dangerous guardrails remain on Kansas & Missouri roads despite ban

Highway guardrails exist to protect drivers from serious injury, but a Missouri father has blamed a guardrail for his daughter’s death.

"I got a phone call and it was my daughter screaming 'daddy,'" Brett Adams said.

It was Dec. 13 and three of Adams’ daughters were together driving to their brother’s house in Southeast Missouri. The roads were icy. There were 13 wrecks that day, including the Adams’ car.

Adams’ daughter Michaela was behind the wheel. She hit ice, fish-tailed and went off the road, striking the guard rail.

By the time Adams arrived at the scene, another daughter, 16-year-old Charity, who had been sitting in the back seat and strapped into her seat belt, had already been pronounced dead.

The Adams’ lawsuit blames Charity’s death on the guardrail.

“It speared, intruded, penetrated, whatever term you would like to use, but yes, this huge W beam went into the space where Charity was seated,” Attorney Kent Emison said.

Emison said the guardrail, known as the ET Plus, is so dangerous it should never have been put on the road. You can find them by the thousands, however, in nearly every state, including Kansas and Missouri.

Guardrails are supposed to slow cars down when they go off the road. Multiple lawsuits alleged that the ET Plus is so poorly designed that on impact, it can lock up and bend, creating a lethal spear that can penetrate a car.

"These guardrails will cut up a car like it's butter in a fraction of a second," Emison said.

Emison blamed a failure by the manufacturer, Trinity Industries, to have the product sufficiently tested or analyzed by engineers before putting it on the road.

Jeffrey Eller, a spokesman for Trinity Industries, denied the guardrail is dangerous and sent FOX4 this statement:

"The ET Plus has never been found defective in any court of law. It meets all standards set forth by the Federal Highway Administration.”

But the Adams’ lawsuit claimed Trinity never initially disclosed to buyers that it had changed main components when it designed its new ET Plus guardrail. The lawsuit alleged the main reason Trinity began selling the ET Plus -- and stopped selling an older, more reliable guardrail -- was to increase profits.

An email from then Trinity Vice President Steve Brown to his corporate team states:

"If Wade’s numbers are good, we would save $2 for each end terminal. That’s $50,000 a year."

Emison said Trinity created the savings by "cheaping it up."

"They changed it from a 5-inch beam to a 4-inch beam," he said. "Now that doesn't sound like much, but that's 20 percent. They reduced the weight by 100 pounds. All in the interest of saving $2. Literally $2."

Emison also pointed to the guardrail's end terminal which he said was no longer symmetrical with the rest of the guardrail, causing, he said, the guardrail to lock up and become a deadly dagger.

Attorney Michael Serra, who is also representing the Adams’ family, said that not long after the ET Plus went on the market, the state of Virginia became so concerned about its safety, it started running its own tests.

The results were so bad that Virginia banned the guardrail. Since then, more than 25 states have followed suit, including Missouri and Kansas.

The problem is that thousands of these guardrails are still on the roads. No one from the Kansas Department of Transportation would return our phone calls, but Missouri’s Dept. of Transportation told FOX4 it is replacing each $2,500 ET Plus guardrail end terminal as they become damaged.

That could take decades. That’s a concern for Brett Adams. He wants Trinity to pick up the cost so that they will be replaced more quickly.

"What is a life worth?" Adams asked.