He helped bring the Colts to Indianapolis. He’s defended corporate and sports titans. So how did personal injury law become the highlight of David Tittle’s career?
Published in 2006 Indiana Super Lawyers magazine
on February 14, 2006
Updated on October 5, 2016
David Tittle has built a solid reputation representing some of the biggest players in American business, including Thomson Multimedia and Philip Morris — and, lest it be forgotten, that career-changing 1984 case involving the Indianapolis Colts, 15 Mayflower moving vans and an inter-city war over eminent domain. But if you ask about the highlight of his career, Tittle’s response is immediate, and has nothing to do with any corporate or sports titans.
“It must have been 20 years ago,” says Tittle, 63. “I represented a young woman who lost her husband and baby in a horrendous accident involving a head-on collision with a semi-truck. They literally died in her arms in this crushed automobile.” She sued the freight hauler, and Tittle secured an out-of-court settlement that remains confidential. “It was a very emotional case,” he recalls. “It was a very satisfying situation to be given the responsibility to represent someone who lost their family in a horrific accident that shouldn’t have happened.”
Don’t get Tittle wrong. As a business litigator, this partner at Indianapolis’ Bingham McHale has helped several Fortune 500 companies maneuver through complex and challenging legal waters, and that is great, satisfying work. “But representing somebody like that [woman] is what it is all about,” he says. “She became a friend after that and we’ve kept in contact. I don’t think a month or a week goes by when I don’t think of that case.”
Colleagues use a lot of different superlatives — “premier” and “elite” chief among them — to describe Tittle, and they all say he’s kept his head. “He is not an arrogant lawyer by any stretch of the imagination,” says Chris Byron, a fellow commercial litigator with Byron, Gerber, Petri & Kalb in suburban St. Louis, who has worked with Tittle on a number of cases. “He has got all of the skill that any other premier lawyer would have, without the arrogance. And I think that goes a long way.”
Tittle’s salt-of-the-earth nature stems from his upbringing in Gary. “I grew up in a steel town,” he says. “About the third time you get punched in the mouth by some guy with a switchblade, that humbles you.”
His family ran a small business; what started out as a local meat market eventually expanded to several area food stores. Tittle spent much of his childhood working for his father. “I grew up packing groceries, with my dad telling me, ‘Look, you’re going to go to college, and we’re going to get you out of this steel town,’” he says.
“You’re perfectly welcome to stay in the business,” his father told him, “but I don’t recommend it.”
The words were prophetic. The family business folded while Tittle was away attending Indiana University–Bloomington. There, Tittle earned an undergraduate business degree before hauling in his J.D. with the class of ’67.
In a feat of dedication that today is as rare as a big-league ballplayer sticking with one pro team for an entire career, Tittle went to work at Bingham McHale and has never left. “Part of [the firm’s] practice was defending personal injury cases for insurance companies,” he says. “That’s how I started. A lot of those cases get tried, so I had a lot of courtroom experience.”
He also had a great mentor in the late Claude Spilman, the firm’s founder. Tittle remembers him as a charismatic lawyer who excelled despite physical infirmities that might have sidelined another man. “He was one of the first-ever kidney transplant cases in Indiana,” Tittle says. “He struggled with that for a number of years; ultimately it killed him. But he was a swashbuckling trial lawyer. He loved to be in the courtroom, and he had no fear. And he instilled that in all of the young lawyers around here. I got to learn from one of the best.”
Tittle may have studied under the man, but he didn’t attempt to replicate the Spilman style. Peter French, a director at Lewis & Kappes in Indianapolis, worked with Tittle closely while defending a tobacco company against an ultimately unsuccessful class action lawsuit against the cigarette industry. He describes Tittle as a “very reserved” attorney “from the old school.”
“I never forgot his oral presentation to the court,” French says. “It was well thought out, it was well presented, and I came to admire him after that event.” French notes that Tittle’s sterling reputation has spread throughout the state, preceding him before judges and lawyers in state and federal courts all over Indiana. Tittle impressed the Indiana Supreme Court enough that, in 2003, it appointed him to serve on the court’s Committee on Character and Fitness, the body that evaluates qualifications of applicants to the state bar.
“He’s just a hard-working, bright, level-headed, conscientious, caring attorney, who — at least in the mediation context — will consider it a personal failure if he doesn’t get it done,” French says. “And it’s been a great benefit to my clients.”
Tittle might have remained a very good if obscure lawyer in Indiana had it not been for an argument between Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer and Robert Irsay, owner of the then-Baltimore Colts. Irsay, whose Colts were long past their Burt Jones glory days and were losing fans fast, had been agitating for a new stadium. The city refused, and Schaefer threatened to have the team condemned and confiscated under eminent domain. The struggle came to a head in March 1984, when the Maryland Legislature passed a bill to condemn the team. It may not have held up in court, but the threat seemed credible enough to Irsay’s lawyers. So he covertly brought in 15 yellow Mayflower moving vans and carted the team off to Indianapolis in the dead of night.
Tittle’s firm already represented Marion County’s Capitol Improvements Board, which built the then-Hoosier Dome. In the fireworks that followed the Colts’ midnight migration, Baltimore sued to get its football team back. Tittle’s firm was hired to represent Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut, who was being personally sued — along with the Indianapolis Colts, the county improvements board and several others — over their respective roles in the team’s exodus from Baltimore. (Hudnut had helped arrange for the moving vans.) Tittle was chosen to serve as the mayor’s lead attorney.
In Tittle’s life, there is a clear historical delineation, BC and AC — before the Colts and after the Colts. “That whole experience changed my professional life,” he says. He had done a bit of corporate litigation to that point, but nothing to compare to this linebacker-sized case. “This was, at the time, about as high-profile, high-stakes a sports litigation as there was in the country.”
Ultimately, Indianapolis prevailed when a judge ruled that Baltimore had no standing to condemn an NFL team. That outcome transformed the city, not to mention Tittle and his law firm.
“There were some unique, complex issues involved,” he says. “There are some very, very good law firms around the country involved in this thing, and quite frankly, we discovered that we could hang in there with the best of them.”
In the intervening years, Tittle has worked on a number of high-profile commercial cases, perhaps none so well known as the successful defense of Philip Morris that involved a number of firms in several states. He acknowledges that defending Big Tobacco has not always left him in good standing with friends. When they challenge him for defending the company, he points to John Adams, the founding father who defended and exonerated several accused British soldiers following the Boston Massacre. “He was probably at risk for his own life,” Tittle says. “I find great inspiration in that.”
Today, Tittle keeps plugging away at commercial law, while keeping a hand in the occasional personal injury case. Such is his reliability that his 34-year-old colleague Byron recently accepted a difficult case simply because he knew it represented another chance to work with Tittle. “He is the kind of lawyer that I always aspire to be,” Byron says.
Tittle’s son Scott feels the same way. The younger Tittle followed his father into the profession, though his career has taken a distinctly political path. Today, Scott Tittle works as special counsel and health care policy director to Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Tittle’s daughter, Maggie Bowden, works as a philanthropy specialist at Indiana University. And his wife, Susie, is active in community volunteerism.
It’s a good life, and Tittle accepts that he has earned a good reputation while serving the law, even if he is modest about how that came to pass. “If I had to guess at it, it’s nothing more complicated than doing your job,” he says. “Sixty percent of life is just showing up.”