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Published February 28 2012

Beet truck driver sued in fatal 2010 crash

MOORHEAD – Fresh from unloading a truckload of sugar beets at the American Crystal Sugar plant in Moorhead, Robert Poehls headed north on U.S. Highway 75.

He noticed an oncoming pickup swerving and drifting into his lane and started to slow down. Soon, the pickup was entirely in his lane, nearly onto the northbound shoulder of the two-lane highway.

Poehls had to decide: Should I go left or go right?

The 63-year-old began to steer the semitrailer to the center of the road, thinking he’d be able to pass by the pickup on his left. But as he moved into the southbound lane, the oncoming pickup veered back into the lane and they collided head-on.

That’s how Poehls described to the Minnesota State Patrol what happened on the hazy morning of Jan. 16, 2010.

Now, the husband of 27-year-old Afton Braseth of Ulen, the pickup driver who died in the crash, is suing Poehls and his employer, TranSystems LLC, for wrongful death in Clay County District Court.

The lawsuit filed last week by Nolan Braseth as trustee of his wife’s estate claims Poehls operated the 2009 Freightliner in a “careless, negligent and reckless manner,” causing it to collide with the pickup on Highway 75 near Highway 93/70th Avenue North.

Braseth’s attorney, Daniel Dunn, declined to discuss details of the ongoing case but referred to the patrol’s crash reconstruction report, which shows the collision occurred in the southbound lane – Afton Braseth’s lane – suggesting it was Poehls who crossed the centerline.

“From our point of view, the accident report says what it says, and we just go with that,” Dunn said.

Nolan Braseth is seeking more than $50,000 in the lawsuit. He and his wife had a 2-year-old son and 3-month-old daughter at the time of her death.

“He’s obviously been devastated by the loss of his wife and the loss of the mother to his children, and so he’s doing the best he can to raise the kids,” Dunn said.

The lawsuit claims TranSystems, which employed Poehls, is liable for his actions.

TranSystems denies that Poehls was negligent and has asked that the lawsuit be dismissed, stating in its response that Afton Braseth’s death was the result of her “careless, negligent and reckless operation of her vehicle,” a white 2008 Ford F-150 pickup.

The company’s lawyer, W. Todd Haggart, said it’s “very unfortunate” that Afton Braseth died in the crash, “but she was driving down the wrong side of the road.”

“We think (Poehls) took the most appropriate actions he could have under the circumstances,” Haggart said.

The patrol’s investigating officer, Sgt. Randy Harms, wrote in his report that the crash data recorder in Poehls’ vehicle showed the semi slowing down about four seconds before impact.

The recorder information “would seem to support Poehls’ description of the crash,” Harms wrote. Poehls didn’t appear fatigued and it was unlikely he was asleep or distracted as he was actively decelerating and braking, Harms added.

Afton Braseth had a large, young dog with her in the cab of the pickup, which “could have been a distraction” to her, wrote Harms, who has since retired from the patrol.

The angles at which the vehicles approached each other couldn’t be determined because neither vehicle left skids or other marks, Harms wrote.

The report’s second-to-last paragraph seems to leave the most room for debate about who was at fault. Harms wrote that, “It appears that Braseth driving over the centerline was a factor in this crash.” But he also noted that Poehls observed the pickup in his lane at least four seconds prior to impact.

“Had Poehls recognized the hazard presented by the Braseth vehicle at this point, he might have taken different/additional evasive action to avoid the collision,” Harms wrote. “The right shoulder of the highway was available for travel in the area of the collision.”

Driving into the ditch wasn’t a viable option for Poehls because of the Highway 93 approach on his right, Harms wrote. Poehls also believed the pickup might continue into the ditch, Harms noted.

By the time Poehls recognized the hazard posed by the pickup, his options for avoiding the collision “were limited or eliminated,” Harms wrote.

“Had Poehls been on the northbound shoulder of U.S. 75, the impact would likely not have occurred,” he wrote. “It is possible that the vehicles would have collided had Poehls remained in the northbound lane.”

This isn’t the first lawsuit filed in connection with the crash.

Transport Leasing Co. LLC, which owned the semi, filed a property damage claim last July against Afton Braseth’s estate, which in turn filed a claim against Poehls. Poehls then filed a counterclaim against the estate for personal injury.

The attorney for Braseth’s estate hired a crash reconstruction expert for that case. Haggart said he also has an expert prepared to testify at trial.

Haggart and Dunn said the parties have agreed to consolidate the cases and bifurcate, meaning a jury trial would focus only on who was liable in the crash, with damages to be determined afterward.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528