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Published May 21 2012

Wrongful death trial under way

MOORHEAD – Jurors heard opening statements Monday in a civil trial to determine which driver caused a fatal crash between a pickup and a sugar beet truck on Jan. 16, 2010, on U.S. Highway 75 north of Moorhead.

The crash killed 27-year-old Afton Braseth of Ulen and injured the truck’s driver, 63-year-old Robert Poehls Jr.

Braseth’s husband filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Poehls and his employer, TranSystems LLC, last February in Clay County District Court.

W. Todd Haggart, attorney for TranSystems, said in his opening statement that the Saturday morning crash was a result of Braseth crossing the centerline “and triggering a chain of events from which neither could escape.”

But Braseth’s attorney, Daniel Dunn, said evidence will show the gouge marks made by the pickup’s front left tire at the time of impact were 4 feet, 9 inches inside the centerline in Braseth’s driving lane.

“If we look at the physical evidence, it is undisputed … that the impact occurred in Afton’s lane of travel,” he said.

Poehls had just finished unloading a truckload of sugar beets at the American Crystal Sugar plant in Moorhead and was northbound on Highway 75 when the pickup swerved into his lane just before the intersection of County Highway 93, Haggart said.

With only an instant to decide, Poehls veered left instead of right because it looked to him as though the pickup was going to continue east and he was afraid of colliding with it on the shoulder of the road, Haggart said.

Instead, Braseth swung the pickup back into her southbound lane, where the two vehicles collided, Haggart said.

However, Dunn said there were no eyewitnesses to the crash – other than Poehls – and he noted conflicting statements Poehls gave to the State Patrol and in a deposition.

“There is no physical evidence in this case which will show that Afton was in the wrong lane prior to the collision,” Dunn said.

Black-box recording devices from the two vehicles showed that Poehls was braking for three to four seconds before impact — 1.6 to 2.6 seconds longer than Braseth was braking, Haggart said.

Poehls’ decision to steer to the left “was a reasonable and appropriate decision, even though it resulted in a terrible collision,” Haggart said.

Now-retired patrol Sgt. Randy Harms wrote in his report that the angles at which the vehicles approached each other couldn’t be determined because neither vehicle left skids or other marks.

Nolan Braseth, who filed the lawsuit as trustee of his wife’s estate, is seeking more than $50,000 in damages, which will be determined separately from this trial, should he win. The couple had a 2-year-old son and 3-month-old daughter at the time of the crash.

Jury selection took most of the day Monday, resulting in a jury of six women and three men. Judge Galen Vaa said the trial is slated to wrap up Wednesday.

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

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