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Leelanau County Jury Awards Man $5 Million After Injuries

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TRAVERSE CITY — Gary Leonard doesn't remember the explosion after he struck a lighter inside a food truck parked at a Leelanau Peninsula Wine, Food & Music Festival.

Flames engulfed Leonard and burned about 47 percent of his body on June 8, 2013. His injuries required a weeks-long medically-induced coma, caused lingering breathing problems, resulted in surgeries and prompted a lawsuit over his medical expenses.

Leelanau County jurors last week found in Leonard's favor and awarded him $5 million, the largest in 13th Circuit Court's recent history, according to the Traverse City Record Eagle. His attorney Paul Janes said the four-day trial focused on mechanical faults within the food truck, a vehicle owned by Leonard's sister at The Vineyard Inn in Suttons Bay.

A miscommunication between local health inspectors and code enforcement officers in part meant those faults slipped through the cracks, Janes said. He said the incident showed a need for national safety standards for food trucks.

Court documents state The Vineyard Inn's owner bought the vehicle in 2008 and installed two propane cylinders. But she didn't maintain the gas system and appliances within the truck, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit arose after Leonard unsuccessfully tried to get his medical costs covered.

Janes said The Vineyard Inn's insurance company continued to dispute the claim and, in effect, drove the case to a four-day trial. He said Leonard likely would have settled for far less than the seven-figure sum jurors ultimately awarded after about 2.5 hours of deliberation.

Scott Fanzini, who represented the defendants, said the award was a disappointment, but not a surprise. He said the defendants are "exploring all options" following the trial.

A patchwork of local regulations on food trucks makes it easier for safety problems to fester, Janes said. He said local officials should be aware of such gaps while an incipient national standard gets off the ground.

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