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Father of girl killed in Corvallis crosswalk crash files lawsuit against city, state

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The father of an 11-year-old girl who died after being hit by a car while crossing a Corvallis street has filed a $9.1 million lawsuit against the city and the Oregon Department of Transportation, alleging road conditions contributed to her death.

Roy Daniel filed a complaint in Benton County Circuit Court in May on behalf of the estate of Rhianna Daniel, his deceased daughter. Roy Daniel could not be reached for comment.

Rhianna Daniel was struck and killed by a Nissan Leaf at about 6:41 p.m., Jan. 8, 2020, as she crossed Highway 99W/Southwest Third Street at a controlled intersection. She had just left the First Alternative Natural Foods Co-Op and was on her way home, less than two blocks away, according to the lawsuit. 

The driver, Peter Eschwey, was not charged with a crime.

The allegations

The lawsuit alleges that the city of Corvallis and ODOT were negligent, among other reasons, because:

  • The design of the intersection failed to comply with existing state law stopping sight-distance standards.
  • Officials did not inspect or maintain the required sight distance standards prior to the collision.
  • Officials did not fix or modify the intersection to improve sight distances for vehicles, drivers and pedestrians.
  • They failed to have a policy to recognize and address line-of-sight issues.
  • There were no signs posted to warn pedestrians about obstructions in lines of sight.

Kristina Edmunson, communications director for the Oregon Department of Justice, said the state could not comment on pending litigation. Steven Lippold, chief trial counsel at the state Attorney General's Office, is representing ODOT in this case.

Springfield-based Robert Franz Jr., attorney for the city of Corvallis, did not respond to a request for comment.

The response

But in answers to the lawsuit filed with the court, lawyers for the city of Corvallis and ODOT both placed the blame on Eschwey and Daniel herself.

The answers allege that Daniel did not take proper safety precautions when using the crosswalk. Specifically, she didn't push the pedestrian signal prior to entering the crosswalk, she didn't wait a "reasonable period of time" for cars to react, she didn't "maintain a proper lookout," zig-zagged in the crosswalk, wore dark clothing and was using her cellphone, among other allegations, according to Corvallis' legal team. 

Furthermore, they suggest that Eschwey was negligent that night, failing to look out for pedestrians crossing the street in the marked crosswalk. ODOT's attorney wrote that Eschwey failed to keep proper control of his vehicle and was "driving at unreasonable speed for the circumstances that existed." 

Eschwey was originally listed as a third-party defendant on the lawsuit, but was later dismissed. ODOT filed a complaint against Eschwey, but Benton County Circuit Court Judge Matthew Donohue dismissed the case with prejudice. Eschwey is permanently dismissed from the case and can’t be brought back to court for this specific matter.

Following the accident, the Oregon DOJ conducted an investigation to see if Eschwey could be charged with manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide. The investigation determined that there was insufficient evidence to file those charges against Eschwey.

The collision 

The initial complaint filed by Rhianna Daniel’s estate said Eschwey was driving at around 45 mph, but a video assessment by Corvallis police Detective Ty Volin estimated Eschwey’s speed at 32-33 mph in the 25 mph speed zone.

Daniel was rushed to Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Corvallis after the crash where she died of her injuries the next day.

Wise added it is still early in the case. Following depositions, the parties can either settle or go to trial. Benton County Circuit Court Judge Locke Williams has been assigned to the case.

The lawsuit is asking for $95,329.03 in medical and related billing along with $9 million in non-economic losses.

“You tell me how much a young girl’s life is worth,” said Michael Wise, the attorney for Rhianna’s estate. “We have to prove the value of someone’s life, which is quite hard when someone is a minor.”

Daniel wasn’t the first to be hit in that crosswalk — the area has a history of accidents. At the time of the January incident, there had already been two other traffic fatalities at that same block of Third Street. Both of these deaths involved bicyclists. Eric Austin died after being hit by a car in the crosswalk in June 2018. Jeremy Gruver died after being fatally struck by a motorist outside of the crosswalk.

The aftermath

Following Daniel’s death, community members gathered in March 2020 for a forum to discuss South Corvallis street safety. During the forum, Corvallis residents questioned ODOT and the city for not having enough safety measures in place.

Attendees also asked local law enforcement why they don’t prosecute drivers more aggressively in fatal crashes that involve pedestrians and bicyclists.

The crosswalk where Daniel’s fatality occurred was equipped with flashing yellow lights that can be activated by the user. However, two of the four lights were damaged in a crash in August 2020 and had not been replaced at the time of the January incident.

Following Daniel’s death, Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson called for safety improvements at the South Corvallis intersection.

The next hearing for the matter is set for Dec. 20.

Maddie Pfeifer covers public safety for Mid-Valley Media. She can be contacted at 541-812-6091 or Madison.Pfeifer@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter via @maddiepfeifer_

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