BY ART BUKOWSKI
SUTTONS BAY — Terror coursed through Colton Brooks as the massive machine he operated slid toward a cherry tree.
Brooks, 17 in the summer of 2011, was running a cherry catcher on July 21 in a grove operated by Stanton Orchards near Lake Leelanau. He lost control of the machine on a hill, then realized he was about to be pinned against a nearby tree as the machine slid down the slope. He slammed on the brakes, but the machine didn't stop.
"I was terrified beyond belief," he said. "I knew I was about to get into a very serious accident."
The roughly 4,000-pound cherry catcher slammed into a tree and crushed Brooks' left leg. He spent at least 10 minutes pinned to the tree before workers were able to pry it loose. His mangled leg looked like an "overcooked hot dog," he said, and he's since undergone several surgeries to repair the damage.
A Leelanau County jury this week awarded Brooks about $650,000 in a lawsuit against Terry, Greg and Todd Stanton, who run Stanton Orchards. It's one of the largest jury awards in the county's history.
Brooks had very limited experience on the machine, said his attorney, R. Jay Hardin. A brake on the machine also malfunctioned, Hardin said, so Brooks had no control over the slide.
Todd Stanton declined comment. Terry and Greg couldn't be reached for comment, nor could their attorneys.
The jury deliberated for about three hours after a four-day trial. The jury award is intended to cover medical expenses already incurred, Hardin said, as well as future medical expenses that could arise from the debilitating injury.
Two more surgeries already are scheduled, Brooks said, and he expects to deal with the ramifications from the incident for the rest of his life.
Brooks — who in his own words has "not an ounce of quit" in him — dedicated himself to overcoming the injury through regular physical therapy. Hardin believes the teen's efforts resonated with the jury.
"I was pleased that the jury in Leelanau County listened to the evidence carefully and recognized that Colton is a young man with a long life ahead of him," Hardin said. "I think the size of the award is a reflection of the quality of kid that Colton is, and his age and the testimony of doctors about what the injuries meant."
Brooks, a 2012 graduate of Traverse City West High School, was a skilled athlete who regularly biked, ran and swam. His dreams of an athletic career are dashed, and he deals with regular and at times intense pain. He's told he'll likely suffer severe arthritis in the future, along with other problems.
Considering his future is rife with question marks, he's glad the jury found in his favor.
"There's a lot of uncertainly around what the trajectory is for my leg throughout my life," he said. "It's been a really hard thing on my family to deal with, and it was definitely great to have this added financial security to deal with the injuries."
The jury determined Brooks was at least partially to blame for what happened to him, and his award will be reduced by 15 percent, Hardin said. The Stantons collectively will be required to pay 85 percent of the award, or roughly $550,000.
Looking back, he knows he shouldn't have been on the machine without a significant amount of additional training.
"At the time, I was trusting these guys. I was thinking, 'Well gosh, they would have told me more if there was more," he said. "These are the experts."
Hardin said the Stantons' insurance company — Auto Owners Insurance — is arguing that it isn't required to cover the award. That issue is being ironed out in a separate, ongoing court proceeding. If the insurance company gets off the hook, the Stantons would be personally liable, Hardin said.
The Stantons have about 21 days to appeal the jury award, Hardin said.