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The Man From Luck

Ardell Skow has spent 50 years taking personal injury cases in northwestern Wisconsin

Published in 2015 Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine

Photo by: Richard Fleischman

Ardell “Dell” Skow was born and raised and currently lives in the town of Luck, Wis., former home to the Duncan Toys yo-yo factory, population 1,100.

“When I’m not there, I like to say I’m out of Luck,” Skow says with a smile.

He also says, “You are where you come from.”

The childhood he describes is something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. “My dad always respected everybody in town. We’d go into town on Saturday night and I’d get a quarter as a kid, and we’d watch the pennies pretty close. We had a great life. Mother fed us out of the garden and the canning. Mom was there, Dad was there, seven days a week.”

Skow’s grandfather and father were blacksmiths, and when Skow was young, he worked at his father’s shop and on a dairy farm about a mile away. He learned a lot in both places, he says, that helped him in his personal injury plaintiff’s practice.

“For example, early in my career I was asked to represent this boy who lost two legs above the knee in a forage blower—that’s the thing you put silage in and it blows it up to the top of the silo. My dad had made prototypes of that design, and after the accident [and a successful suit against the forage blower], we made a video with him showing an automatic shut-off. So if you did get caught in it, you would touch that bar and it would stop. That video went everywhere.

“Products liability on the farm setting is [occurring] less and less, although within the last year I settled another corn-picker case. But I got an understanding from Dad on how mechanical things work. It’s just kind of a fundamental training thing.” He pauses, remembering. “It’s a mentality that my dad had. He didn’t ever swear, and it’s emotional to me to this day, this lesson that I got:

“I was working on a motor scooter that I had to have to drive to work on the farm and milk cows, and I was working on this straight pipe and having trouble getting the pipe to fit. There were two bolts that needed to go in on either side of the manifold, and I couldn’t get them to line up. I was being impatient about it and cussing and Dad’s not saying anything, and I decided to take a long drill bit and go through it. Well, I broke the drill bit. And then I threw the drill bit to the south end of the shop. I hit Dad’s welding helmet and broke the glass. And that’s his stock in trade, you know?

“Dead silence in the shop. And Dad leaned on the anvil—big anvil that Dad had before him—and he broke the silence by saying, ‘You see? It just does not pay to get mad.’

“I was 14 years old. Quite a lesson.”

It stuck. Years later, in Baron, Skow was representing a kid who got run over by a Jeep driven by a 16-year-old. During cross-examination, the young defendant was going after Skow, and he wanted to bark back and bury him. Except Skow had his co-counsel pass him notes with a simple directive: Be nice.

“The result was that the smart aleck was barking and I stayed nice,” Skow says. “That’s good advice: You’re a lot more effective if you don’t get mad. There are times when it’s OK to get mad, but you have to be careful because the jury tends to identify with the witness because the lawyer has an unfair advantage.”

The jury ruled in favor of Skow’s client.

 

Now in his 50th year of practicing law, Skow says it’s difficult to estimate the number of personal injury cases he’s handled. He guesses it’s well over a thousand.

“I go to a restaurant in Baldwin and there’ll sometimes be five or six people that I’ve represented,” he says, sitting in his office at Doar Drill & Skow in New Richmond. “I’ve been here a long time. It doesn’t seem like it, but I have. Tie your arguments to home and who and what you know. I have that experience. You know when the defense is venturing into areas they know nothing about and scraping the very bottom of the barrel.”

Skow is both generalist and specialist and very hands-on in his practice. His office is a testament to the knowledge he brings to each case. Amid the framed degrees, accolades and family photos hanging on the walls, there are skeletons, models of the human brain and human skull, anatomy maps, and framed drawings from Frank H. Netter, M.D.’s Atlas of Human Anatomy—all of which he uses in court.

“The biggest thing is to keep the jury’s interest,” he says. “It’s hard to come out of their busy lives and sit there and probably not really have time for [a trial], so you try and give them something that is at least interesting. Way back when, I always used my easel. I would write on it: ‘What is negligence?’ And explain all those duties, and if you breach those duties, then you’re negligent. I’m not really a tech guy; I was always using my easel way before they were using [PowerPoint]. I’m of the opinion that I’d rather have the thing in my hand, because I’m in control of things then, and they’re paying attention to me—not to another TV program. It’s more convincing. It’s real.”

“He loves detail,” says Drew Ryberg, an Eau Claire-based attorney. “The more the better, and he applies that to the cases he does. He’s very bright, diligent and well-respected by people up in Polk and St. Croix counties and the rest of the state. He’s respected by lawyers as somebody who really is an advocate: hard-working, creative and tenacious as heck.”

“He has no peer, I think, in our state, in product liability cases, particularly farm machinery,” says Jim Drill, Skow’s law partner for the past 40 years.

“He and I have been the closest of friends, so you have to take that into consideration when you ask my opinion of him,” Drill continues. “We are, without exaggeration, as close as two guys can be. I’ve learned a lot from him; he may have learned a few things from me. His tenacity, his empathy, his reliance on what he learned as a child, all contributed to his tremendous talent to be persuasive with juries.

“Because, above all, he’s credible. When he talks to people, when he explains things, they listen.”

That’s both Skow and Drill. As for the third name in the firm title?

John Doar was a taciturn Eisenhower Republican who joined the Kennedy justice department and helped navigate the South through all the changes in the early 1960s. He helped draft the Civil Rights Act of 1964; prosecuted the federal case against the killers of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner; and was involved in the Selma march in 1965. During the Watergate scandal, Doar was chief counsel for the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary. In 2012 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. He died last November.

“John Doar always just made me get goose bumps in his presence,” Skow says. “He was quite a man. He just impressed me so; he commanded such respect from me. He was very easy to talk to. And what an accomplished lawyer; an inspiration, no doubt.”

 

In the early ’60s, Skow attended not only the law school at the University of Wisconsin but its business school, too, and received degrees in law, statistics and accounting. During that time, he went to work for American Family Insurance, representing insurers in personal injury cases. Four years later, a fellow lawyer told him it’s more fun talking to people than insurance companies. He hasn’t looked back.

“I’ve told clients, ‘You have to understand that, in order for me to do this competitive practice, I have to view it as a game—even though it isn’t,’” he says. “‘But we want to win.’”

One loss in particular sticks in his craw.

“The jury gave a doctor a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card,” he says, squirming in his chair, obviously agitated. “Without going into the complications, a man goes in to have a bone spur removed from his elbow. It’s supposed to be a 45-minute surgery, and three hours later he comes out and the doctor has severed his radial nerve. They try to do things to make it better, but he was a repairman for telephone companies, working with screwdrivers above electrical things, so he was out of business.

“The jury thought that if they convicted the doctor of malpractice he’d never be able to practice again, so they let him go. That one’s hard. That really haunts me to this day: What in the world could you do different? … I see [the client] every three months or so, and I always have to shake hands with his left hand. He never held it against me, but it’s always an important assignment each time you represent someone in these injury matters. I take it very personally.”

According to Drill, that empathy for others was learned early.

“His father had a severe disability, and Dell himself had polio when he was a child and a stint in an iron lung,” says Drill. “He knows what it’s like to have a near-death significant disability. With the polio epidemic, kids were confined in their yards. [But] he came out of that illness pretty good.”

Ten years ago, Skow, now 75, the twice-married father of four and grandfather of eight, began easing into retirement. It didn’t take.

“I like deer hunting and pheasant hunting and I have a little boat in Florida,” he says, “but it’s difficult for me to think about retiring, because I think I’ll lose my identity. It’s who I am. … I love the law. I love talking about the law. It’s been very good to me.”

He is where he comes from. “I’m very fortunate,” he adds. “Lucky.”

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