County attorney in court over car crashOn Nov. 18, Cloquet residents Thom Pertler and Tracy Vargason were in a minor car accident at Highway 33 and Big Lake Road in Cloquet. Now Vargason is suing Pertler in small claims court.
By: Brandon Stahl and Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
On Nov. 18, Cloquet residents Thom Pertler and Tracy Vargason were in a minor car accident at Highway 33 and Big Lake Road in Cloquet.
No one was hurt, but the accident became news for two reasons: first, because Pertler is Carlton County Attorney and a public figure; second, because events after that have spiraled to the point where Vargason is suing Pertler, claiming he was responsible for the accident and should cover her $1,000 deductible for car repairs, and that what he told his insurance company differs from his initial statement to police.
Meanwhile, the Cloquet Police Department acknowledges its officers should have done more to investigate and document the accident.
“This whole thing is crazy,” said Vargason, 43. “It was such a minor accident and it never had to come to this.”
Because it’s currently in litigation, Pertler said he had no comment on the case, except to say: “It’s my position that I was in the right of way.”
That’s where the disagreement begins.
Vargason said she was heading north on Highway 33 when she made a left turn onto Big Lake Road and collided with Pertler, who she claims was making a right turn onto Big Lake Road on a red light.
“When the police asked what happened, I responded that he hit me,” Vargason said. “He didn’t refute that at all. If he thought I was turning on red, you would think he would say that then. I didn’t realize he was going to change his story.”
Vargason said that after she submitted her insurance claims, Pertler’s insurance company responded by saying she was at fault for the accident by turning on a red light.
But police reports indicate that Pertler didn’t challenge Vargason’s assessment of the accident shortly after it occurred. According to one report, an officer wrote Vargason was making a left turn on the green arrow when Pertler made a right turn and both tried to enter the same lane at the same time. The officer coded Pertler’s turn as being done on a red light.
Cloquet Police Chief Wade Lamirande said more should have been done to document the incident at the time.
“More should have been done, because as the story unfolded, either the story changed or there is now no admission of guilt,” Lamirande said.
The fact that the state accident report wasn’t written until Vargason asked for it on Dec. 5 – two and a half weeks after the accident – further complicates the matter.
Lamirande explained that police officers are required to write a state accident report within 10 days when someone is injured and/or the damage caused by the accident exceeds $1,000. Initially, officers didn’t think the damage met that threshold, therefore the report wasn’t written until Vargason contacted the police department and said the damage to her car exceeded $2,500 because the right-side quarter panel and the fender of her car were smashed in.
“In hindsight, it would have been more helpful at the time if officers would have taken photos and dictated a supplementary report in regard to any statements and/or comments made by drivers at the scene,” Cloquet Deputy Police Chief Terry Hill said.
Vargason said she has known Officer Da vid Hallback, one of two Cloquet police officers responding to the accident, for several years, and because officers knew her and Pertler she acknowledged it was likely “that they didn’t follow all of the steps they should have; they didn’t follow the procedures.”
“I hate to think [Pertler] got preferential treatment, because that would be a sad commentary on the Cloquet Police Department,” Vargason added.
Lamirande reiterated that his officers didn’t give either party preferential treatment.
“Police departments across the state handle [minor accidents] differently,” he said, explaining that there are other departments in the state that don’t respond to minor accidents of this type. “Typically, small departments like ours go the extra mile. You make sure everyone is OK, make sure they exchange information and determine the position of the vehicles at the time of the crash, where the damage is and take statements from the drivers and any witnesses so you can determine what caused the crash.
“In this case, the officers determined no one was hurt and the exchange of information was occurring and left it at that. There are times when we are just facilitating the exchange of information.”
Officer Hallback wrote that when he asked about the crash, Pertler said he was taking his son to hockey practice and had planned to scoot across the parking lot in front of Pine Tree Plaza.
Vargason took that to mean Pertler was at fault.
“He was in a rush to get to hockey practice,” she said.
Lamirande said he spoke to both officers and other police department staff after Vargason’s initial call to remind them to try to determine the cause of the accident when they go out on this type of call.
Insurance companies for both sides are in arbitration deciding who was at fault for the accident. Until that’s settled, the small-claims lawsuit she filed against Pertler was put on hold Monday by Judge Daniel Kammeyer.
The arbitration is expected to be settled sometime next month, Vargason said.