2017-02-23 / Front Page

Jury sets a record

$5.1 million awarded by Leelanau jury
By Patti Brandt Burgess
Of The Enterprise staff


A VEHICLE fire badly burned the body of a Suttons Bay man whose sister’s insurance company will be tapped to pay a $5.1 million jury award. A VEHICLE fire badly burned the body of a Suttons Bay man whose sister’s insurance company will be tapped to pay a $5.1 million jury award. A Suttons Bay man who was burned over half of his body has been awarded a settlement of more than $5 million, likely the largest personal injury settlement ever awarded by a jury in Leelanau or Grand Traverse counties.

Gary Leonard spent months in a hospital burn unit after an explosion caused by a gas leak that took place on a commercial food truck when he attempted to light an oven.

Ray Pleva, the former owner of Pleva Meats, was one of seven jury members.

“We all knew how serious this was,” Pleva said. “He was a strong, healthy person before this happened. There’s a lot of things he’ll never be able to do again.”

Pleva said that while only five jurors needed to agree on the amount they awarded, all seven agreed in this case.

“We went down the middle of the road,” Pleva said. “We didn’t want it to be too low.”

The lawsuit was filed in March 2016 against Pam Leonard, who owned the catering truck as part of the two businesses she owns — The Vineyard Inn on Suttons Bay and Wine Country Weddings & Events. She is Gary Leonard’s sister and was his employer.

The case was tried in the 13th Circuit court- room of Judge Thomas G. Power, who told those involved that it was the largest settlement he knows of in Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties.

After a four-day trial, jury members deliberated for a little more than three hours on Friday before coming back with their verdict, which includes $1.4 million for the pain and anguish as well as the disabilities and disfigurement Gary Leonard has experienced to date. Another $2.8 million was awarded for pain, anguish and medical conditions he will likely face in the future.

He was also provided $739,269 for past medical expenses, with another $70,000 for future medical care and treatment.

The jury determined that Gary Leonard was not negligent in his lighting of the oven. He did not return a call seeking comment from the Enterprise.

Pam Leonard said she wants the community to know that Gary Leonard, who lives with her, sued her insurance company — not her personally.

“That was an insurance situation and we had a good outcome,” Pam Leonard said. “We were more than pleased with the jury’s decision.”

Gary Leonard’s complaint was filed by his Grand Rapids attorney, J. Paul Janes, who tried the case with attorney Laura Danielson. Both are with the Gruel Mills Nims & Pylman PLLC law firm.

“It’s a highly unusual award,” Janes said. “At the same time, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t justified. (Leonard’s) injuries were catastrophic and the jury knew that.”

Catastrophic injuries

Gary Leonard was injured in June 2013 and Pam Leonard said she and her brother have been fighting her insurance company since then. Pam Leonard said she was well insured and had never made a claim.

His injuries included burns to his skin, trachea and lungs and trauma to both knees. Treatment included skin grafts, joint replacement and other therapies.

After Gary Leonard was injured, Pam Leonard’s insurance agent made promises to them and did not follow through, she said.

“They did everything they could to make us miserable the last four years,” she said.

Leonard also said she had to be proven neglectful in order to win the suit. The explosion was due to a gas line with an unsecured valve cock from an appliance that had been removed from the truck, according to the complaint.

The truck had several appliances that were all fueled by propane.

Pam Leonard said the truck was inspected by the Benzie-Leelanau County District Health Department twice a year as required, but had not been inspected by the county building inspector.

Leonard, who said she may have been the first person in northern Michigan to own a commercial food truck, said she did not know it needed an additional inspection.

Pleva said he had a gas grill on his porch that he removed a couple of years ago, capping off the line. He took a picture of that line and showed it to his fellow jurors.

“We knew if there had been an inspection on the mechanical part of the equipment that explosion wouldn’t have happened,” Pleva said.

Janes said the jury was “exceptionally intelligent,” an opinion based on their answers about their lives and careers on the jury questionnaire and on information found in a Google search of each one.

“It was a very intelligent panel with a very good cross section of the community up there,” Janes said. “These people knew what was going on.”

Janes said it came through to the jury that it wasn’t a family dispute. He related that Gary Leonard was “very happy” that the jury found the explosion wasn’t his fault, as attorneys for his sister’s company kept saying.

“At the end of the day my client is ecstatic about the outcome,” Janes said.

Pleva said the trial drained him. Thinking about the case kept him awake at night.

“This takes the energy right out of you, but we had to do our part and we did,” Pleva said. “We all thought 100 percent that this was fair.”

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