In the early 1960s, an Indianapolis man had dinner with his family on a Sunday evening then climbed into his car and began driving toward Chicago. He was killed three hours later when his car ran under a tractor-trailer that was trying to make a U-turn on U.S. 41.
Attorney Donald Ward and his mentor, the late Howard Young Jr., were hired by the victim’s family. The case came shortly after Indiana had revamped its caps on wrongful death, and one puzzling aspect of the tragic accident threatened the survivors’ ability to make a claim. According to the police toxicology report, the man’s blood indicated he had a very high level of alcohol in his system.
Ward and Young began investigating. That was part of the practice of law for plaintiffs’ attorneys back then. The pair would take and develop photos of collisions or product defects then look at the images for hours, searching for clues. They collected their own set of facts and often sat around witnesses’ kitchen tables getting their statements.
The family told Ward and Young that the man did not drink at dinner. Also, no empty liquor bottles or beer cans were found in the car. So to solve the puzzle of the U.S. 41 accident, Ward settled into his car and retraced the man’s route northbound from Indianapolis.
Ward stopped at every bar, hotel and restaurant along with way where the man could have pulled over and purchased alcohol. Showing the photo of the victim and the newspaper article about the accident, Ward did not find anyone who remembered the man.
Then Ward and Young quizzed their own toxicology expert and discovered a possible answer. State troopers had collected the victim’s blood at the accident scene that was slick with fluids from the car’s destroyed engine. If the caps to the vials that held the blood had been placed on a spot saturated with antifreeze, which contains alcohol, the residue might have contaminated the sample.
That theory bolstered the plaintiffs’ argument that the man had not consumed any alcohol, and it convinced the jury. The 12 came back with a verdict in favor of the victim’s widow and children.
“I think that little story shows what ‘good lawyering’ can do,” Ward said.
Good lawyering has been the hallmark of Ward’s 60-year career. A plaintiffs’ attorney, Ward is known as a strong advocate for his client as well as a diligent and civil professional. He has held the position of president of the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association and served multiple terms on both the Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission and the Indiana Judicial Qualifications Commission.
In recognition of his dedication to the practice of law, colleagues on the bench and bar have selected Ward as the 2015 Indiana Bar Foundation Legendary Lawyer. The award is given annually to an Indiana Bar Foundation Fellow who upholds the highest principles and traditions of the legal profession throughout a career of 50 years or more.
“Don would be on the list of lawyers who I want to be like in terms of integrity, intelligence and commitment to doing the right thing,” said John Trimble, attorney at Lewis Wagner LLP.
Ward, raised on a farm in Osgood, identified his career path while he was still in elementary school when he told his classmates he was going to be a lawyer. He saved the money he earned from his paper route as well as his after-school jobs at the local pharmacy and shoe store, and after high school he enrolled in Hanover College.
From there he went to the Notre Dame Law School, inspired to study at the South Bend university because his father was a fan of the fighting Irish. The curriculum was rigorous, with the students being required to pass exams each semester not only on their current courses but also on the courses they had taken the previous year.
Ward was admitted to practice in 1954 and after a stint in the military, he settled into practicing law with Young on Jan. 1, 1957. Even today as Ward spins stories from a long career, he often mentions Young, describing him as “an extremely talented trial lawyer” and “like a father to me.”
Among Young’s nine children, which included six boys (all now attorneys), Ward was dubbed “the 7th brother.” He became more than a co-worker of their father’s. With his outgoing, gregarious manner, Ward was a friend who became family. When the elder Young died, he gave the eulogy.
“He came from Osgood so he’s got that farmer mentality; he’s going to roll up his sleeves, get out there and beat the bushes for the witnesses,” said Young’s son Jim. “He and dad were not going to be outworked by the other lawyers.”
Ward eventually moved from private practice with Young to the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office. The impetus was the paycheck. Ward and his wife had six children, and the deputy prosecutor’s salary was a needed boost.
A few years later, Ward opened his own practice. His first case was representing a 17-year-old who had injured his back when he was hit by another driver running a red light. The young man had been instructed not to lift anything over 10 pounds but, in the course of his job, he had to lift a very heavy television. As he was hoisting the TV in his truck, he noticed a man across the street who was filming him.
Ward discovered the cameraman was employed by the defense counsel. Once he got the videographer on the stand, Ward questioned the man about jeopardizing his client’s physical health. He recalled the jury responded with a “pretty good verdict.”
Success like that did not come from working 9 to 5. Ward arrived at the office by 8 each morning and every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night would try to finish by 10:15. Saturday was also a workday, but Ward would leave the office by 2:30 in the afternoon.
“That left me with Saturday afternoon, Saturday evening, all day Sunday with the kids,” he explained. “My wife needed a break. (Also) I wanted to make sure all my children knew they had a dad.”
Sherrill Colvin of Haller & Colvin in Fort Wayne said Ward’s legacy to the profession extends beyond his practice. One of Ward’s greatest contributions to the Indiana justice system, Colvin said, is his work on the judicial commissions. He was very much involved to ensure the best and the brightest joined the judiciary.
Ward now practices with his son Charlie at their firm, Ward & Ward.
Father and son found themselves in the middle of an unbelievable case in 2004. They were representing the family of Whitney Cerak, a Taylor University student who was thought to have died along with four others in a traffic accident. However, Cerak had been misidentified and was actually alive.
Recalling that case which made national headlines, Ward echoed a familiar refrain.
“There was a lot of good lawyering done by other attorneys in the country that represented other people in that collision who were killed,” Ward said, noting he and his son represented all the individuals who were injured riding in the van. “Lot of good lawyering, as far as I’m concerned, was done.”
At 87, Ward does not do trial work anymore. He said his mental faculties are no longer as quick as they need to be, but he still comes in the office every day and helps his son with the caseload.
“I have been blessed,” Ward said. “I think the practice of law is a very noble profession. I don’t know what I would do that I would enjoy more than practicing law.”•