Complaint Underlying Michigan State Jury Award Of Over $ 5 Million To Man Severely Burned While Working In His Sister's Food Concession Truck
On June 8, 2013, Plaintiff Gary Leonard was helping his sister Pamela Leonard by working in her food concession truck at the Leelanau Food and Wine Festival. Pamela had purchased the truck five years previously at a fraction of its value through eBay. The truck's former owner had removed a gas appliance, leaving an open propane gas line that was not capped. The truck was also equipped with a propane-fueled charbroiler that did not have an automatic shut-off valve. Both hazards were prohibited by federal and state codes and regulations. Pamela used the truck in connection with her two hospitality and catering businesses, namely, The Vineyard Inn on Suttons Bay LLC and Wine Country Weddings & Events LLC.
While working in the truck's gallery kitchen that day, Gary was severely burned in a flash fire when propane, which had escaped from an uncapped gas line, ignited. Gary had full and partial thickness burns over 47% of his body. He was in a medically-induced coma and on a ventilator for nearly two months, during which he experienced kidney failure, heart arrhythmia, low blood pressure, inadequate blood perfusion to his brain, and other complications. Substantial skin grafts were performed. The lasting impacts of his injuries include extensive scarring, disfigurement, and discomfort, severe pulmonary problems and resulting limitations on activity, difficulties with cognition/mental processing, personality change, and depression. Gary incurred medical bills of approximately $ 740,000.00.
On March 30, 2016, Gary filed an action against defendants, Pamela Leonard and her businesses, The Vineyard Inn and Wine Country Weddings, in the Michigan Circuit Court for Leelanau County. He asserted claims of negligence and negligence per se, based on violations of state and federal statutes and regulations pertaining to hazardous materials and explosive gases.
The action proceeded to a jury trial before Judge Thomas G. Power. According to information provided by plaintiff's counsel, defendants asserted that Gary's negligence claims were barred by the exclusive remedy provision of the Michigan Workers' Compensation Disability Act because he was in the course of employment at the time he was injured. This argument was asserted even though the corporate defendants' workers' compensation carrier had already denied Gary's claim for such benefits. Pamela Leonard stipulated at trial that Gary was not employed by her or any of her businesses at the time of his injuries. Accordingly, the court found on directed verdict that Gary was not an employee of the defendants, and thus his claim was not barred by the workers' compensation exclusive remedy provision.
A significant contested issue at trial was the source of the propane gas that caused the fire. Defendants contended that Gary turned on the charbroiler, but, due to his lack of training, neglected to immediately light the pilots, allowing propane gas to accumulate in the galley kitchen. Conversely, plaintiff's origin and cause expert opined that Gary had turned the supply valve to the open gas line-which was unmarked and located in a cabinet near the supply valve for the charbroiler-and then attempted to light an appliance with a Bic lighter, causing the massive flash fire. Further, plaintiff's experts testified that the volume of gas necessary to cause the fire could not have escaped the charbroiler burners in the relevant time period and that the burn patterns and soot witness marks showed that the fire was fueled by the uncapped gas line. Additionally, plaintiff argued that the charbroiler should not have been used on a food truck, as it was not properly equipped with an automatic shut-off valve, as required by law, and no gas could have leaked from it had the shut-off valve been present.
Prior to trial, plaintiff had offered to settle for $ 2,000,000.00. Defendants initially offered $ 200,000.00, but raised that amount to $ 450,000.00 at conclusion of trial.
On Feb. 17, 2017, the jury reached a verdict in plaintiff's favor after two and a half hours of deliberation, awarding him a total of $ 5,009,269.07.
Plaintiff was represented by J. Paul Janes and Laura B. Danielson of Gruel Mills Nims & Pylman PLLC in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Defendants were represented by J. Scott Fanzini of Merry Farnen & Ryan PC in Saint Clair Shores, Michigan.
Lexis Advance subscribers may view the complete summary, including expert information and award details, here: Gary Leonard v. The Vineyard Inn on Suttons Bay LLC, Wine Country Weddings & Events LLC, and Pamela Leonard; 2017 Jury Verdicts LEXIS 372.
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