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Suit over death of artist Tamar Monhait turns ugly as garbage company replies to $24 million claim.

A security camera video shows the fatal collision that ended the life of Portland artist Tamar Monhait. This still shows her in the intersection of Southeast Water Avenue and Taylor Street shortly before a garbage truck owned by McInnis Waste Systems, Inc. appears in view, colliding with her.The garbage company that was sued over the death of cyclist Tamar Monhait is fighting back — accusing the artist of "causing her own death" in a court filing.

Monhait, who was 41, was riding her bicycle north on Southeast Water Avenue shortly before 2 a.m. on Aug. 21 when a garbage truck driving south turned left in front of her onto Taylor Street, fatally injuring her.

Monhait's death, the second fatal crash involving a cyclist in Portland this year, has sparked calls for safety improvements. Her family filed a $10 million lawsuit accusing the garbage company and driver of negligence, driving too fast, making a reckless left turn into Monhait's path, and turning without a blinker.

Video shows collision

The case would seem to be more clearcut than many similar cases, because a video of the incident was captured by a nearby security camera. From a side view, the intersection appears well lighted. It shows Monhait proceeding in the bike lane with what appears to be a rear light flashing brightly. Turning in front of Monhait as she pedals along, briefly obscuring her from the camera's field of vision, the truck driver stops suddenly and runs back to where Monhait's body is now visible, prone in the intersection. He then runs back to the truck cab, perhaps to make a call of some kind.

Since the initial flurry of publicity has faded, two significant things have happened. First, the family filed an amended suit boosting its claim to $24 million plus punitive damages.

And second, the garbage truck company has filed its reply to the suit, accusing Monhait of negligence in failing to have a front head lamp on her bicycle, failing to wear a helmet and bright clothing, riding while being intoxicated, riding too fast, and lacking effective brakes on her bike. It claims the company was "improperly named" as a defendant, that Monhait "failed to yield the right of way to defendants" and "struck" the truck, "causing her own death."

Jury would weigh arguments

Dueling arguments such as these show how cases can go even when the injured cyclist seems blameless, according to Ray Thomas, a bike advocate and Portland lawyer who specializes in such cases and written a legal guide for cyclists. "Unfortunately, I've learned the lessons several times," he said.

Thomas hasn't studied the case in detail. But generally speaking, Monhait's family would seem to have a strong argument to make involving an unsafe left turn by the driver he said, adding that in a case involving a large commercial truck, "I believe that common sense and the legal standard extracts from the professional driver a pretty darn high standard."

But failing to have a legally required front lamp on your bicycle, as well as riding while intoxicated, also are violations of the Oregon vehicle code.

"What lawyers fear is that motorists (who are jurors) will look at no front light on a bike ... just like they look at drivers who are driving with their headlights turned off at night," Thomas said. "And when somebody doesn't have their headlights on at night it causes everyone, particularly in polite Portland, Oregon, to freak out."

Juries must weigh various factors in cases like this, Thomas said: "You take this big kettle of stuff and give it to a jury, and they sort of have to sort through it."

The family's suit may butt up against an Oregon law capping jury verdicts. The company has invoked it and asked for noneconomic damages — of which the family seeks $20 million — to be limited to $500,000.

The garbage company, Republic Services Alliance Group, issued a statement through its affiliated company that operated the truck, McInnis Waste Systems, Inc, expressing "our deepest sympathies to the family of Tamar Monhait on their loss."

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