Three people have been killed by drivers on the same stretch of road in Corvallis in the 18 months between 2018 and 2020. Eric Austin and Jeremy Gruver, both 32, were struck by drivers while cycling in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Rhianna Daniel, 11, was killed in January 2020 while she was walking across the street in the same area.
Today, Rihanna’s scooter and some of her toys remain in the median of the mid-block crossing of SE 3rd (Highway 99W) and SW Twin Oaks Circle.
Gruver’s lawsuit seeks more than $2 million collectively from the suspected drivers, the City of Corvallis and the Oregon Department of Transportation. In Gruver’s case, both suspected drivers say he was to blame for his own death because he allegedly didn’t maintain a proper lookout, performed an unsafe turn while bicycling and didn’t yield to the driver’s right of way.
The stretch of road all three people were crossing is on ODOT’s Highway 99W over the Marys River, a place Gruver’s lawsuit alleges is “unreasonably dangerous for vehicular, pedestrian and bicyclist travel for the general public” because of poor street design that funnels traffic onto Highway 99. The mid-block crossing is just 350 feet from ramps that lead U.S. Highway 20.
Gruver’s lawyers say ODOT and the City of Corvallis should have known the crosswalk and surrounding area were unsafe. It claims that there is insufficient lighting in the area and the bike lanes were in poor condition and too narrow according to ODOT standards, along with other issues.
The lawsuit that Rhianna Daniel’s father has filed against ODOT and the City of Corvallis is for more than $9 million. This lawsuit alleges that the intersection where she was struck didn’t comply with ODOT’s line of sight requirements, the agency didn’t inspect or maintain these requirements and there were no signs posted to warn pedestrians about these line of sight obstructions.
ODOT and the City of Corvallis have both placed blame on both the driver and the victim.
No lawsuit or criminal charges were filed after Austin’s death in 2018. But the community has been urging officials to act on this dangerous stretch of Highway 99 since Austin was killed – another reason ODOT and Corvallis should have known there were problems before two more people were killed.
Litigation is pending for both Gruver and Daniel’s lawsuits, but as of now, ODOT and the City of Corvallis have both placed blame on both the driver and the victim. In the case of Gruver’s lawsuit specifically, the government organizations have claimed immunity from liability.
Claiming “discretionary immunity” is a common legal tactic when government agencies like ODOT are sued with claims of dangerous infrastructure. The federal statute says a public body is immune from liability for “any claim based upon the performance of or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty, whether or not the discretion is abused.” We’ve reported on cases like this before, and have found the government agency will often settle with the family out of court.
Regardless of whether or not ODOT or Corvallis will face any legal consequence for this clearly hazardous infrastructure, these lawsuits draw attention to the statewide problem of ODOT-owned arterials wreaking havoc on road users just trying to get from place-to-place in their neighborhood.
Just last night in Portland, there was a fatal hit-and-run on a different stretch of this same highway. It happened at the intersection of ODOT’s Highway 99E and SE Holgate — just yards from where a man was killed in a separate hit-and-run back in September.
Taylor has been BikePortland’s staff writer since November 2021. She has also written for Street Roots and Eugene Weekly. Contact her at email@example.com