Georgia family joins fight against guardrail maker over deadly crash

Eunice Ferguson was killed in Habersham County in September 2013 when a guard rail broke and speared her car.
Eunice Ferguson was killed in Habersham County in September 2013 when a guard rail broke and speared her car.

Jodie Fleischer is an investigative reporter for Channel 2 Action News.

The survivor of a deadly north Georgia crash is now suing embattled guardrail maker, Trinity Industries, after a Channel 2 Action News investigation tied the crash to similar deaths around the country.

Eunice Ferguson was driving her Buick along Highway 356 in Habersham County on Sept. 21, 2013, when it ran off the road and into the end of a guardrail. Photos indicate that rather than absorbing the impact like it’s supposed to, the guardrail’s end locked up and the rail speared through the car, killing the 78-year-old.

“Her sister was forced to sit there and watch the life ebb away beside the roadway that day, it was a horrendous death,” said attorney Bill Lanham, who is assisting on the case.

Ferguson’s sister, Opal Shook, was riding in the backseat of the car, and is still too distraught to speak about what she witnessed.

Lanham says she decided to file the wrongful death lawsuit in hopes that no other families will have to endure the pain she has.

“They want accountability, this is a devastating loss,” said Lanham, “They want to know why this guardrail didn’t perform like it was supposed to perform. It clearly didn’t, we’ve got the pictures. This is outrageous what happened there.”

The guardrail end terminal was an ET-Plus. Thousands of them still line Georgia highways, even though a jury found Trinity Industries guilty last fall of defrauding the federal government by secretly shrinking the design to save money.

At the time, the Georgia Department of Transportation said there hadn’t been any problems with the ET-Plus in Georgia. But Channel 2 Action News scoured three years’ worth of crash reports and photos, and spotted the Habersham crash.

At least 20 families around the country have also sued, claiming ET-Plus failures killed or severely injured their loved ones.

“That can happen to anybody anywhere. And you know you can’t put a dollar sign on a life. It needs to be fixed and now,” said Flora Wade, who was close with both sisters.

The lawsuit does not name Georgia’s Department of Transportation because the deadline had already passed to legally do that, but Opal Shook is hoping GDOT will take note anyway.

“Georgia’s not a leader in this department, Georgia’s a follower,” said Lanham, “I think they’ll pay more attention to the end treatments they use henceforth. It’s not supposed to be a death sentence to go off the road.”

A spokesman for Trinity Industries was not aware of this new Georgia lawsuit, but defends the ET-Plus guardrail ends as safe. He said every crash is different.

The product has passed all of its federal crash tests, including new ones administered earlier this year after the verdict, the spokesman said. The state of Virginia is beginning independent testing of the product.

Lanham says the photos from Eunice Ferguson’s crash show just how horrific her death was when the guardrail sliced through the car.

“They melted the whole thing down with the guardrail still in the car, they didn’t even try to remove it,” he said. “That’s how bad it was.”

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