ELYRIA — Oberlin College attorneys said Wednesday the college is looking to change the behavior of its students and staff after a jury found that the college and a top administrator defamed a small business following student protests two-and-a-half years ago.
At the same time, attorneys for Gibson’s Bakery — the Oberlin business that last week won an $11 million civil judgment against the liberal arts college — said their clients deserve two times that in punitive damages to ensure the college never libels or interferes with another small business again.
In a heated case that has drawn national attention, Oberlin College could be ordered by a jury of five women and three men to pay anywhere from $11 million up to $33 million in combined damages to the Gibson family and Gibson’s Bakery.
Lorain County Common Pleas Judge John Miraldi said he will deliver the jury’s instructions for deliberation on punitive damages starting at 10 a.m. today, nearing the end of the six-week trial.
Jurors will be instructed to decide if Gibson’s and its owners should receive up to an additional $22 million in punitive damages, which Miraldi said are intended to punish, show society’s disapproval and discourage such conduct from happening again.
Despite the college’s total wealth and assets being estimated at $1.4 billion, a large punitive judgment could cause Oberlin College’s financial position to be unsustainable in the long term, President Carmen Twillie Ambar said on the stand Wednesday.
With its endowment as it is now, Ambar said the college can survive, but “survival isn’t sustainability,” she said Wednesday. Enrollment is down over the past decade, and Ambar testified that the college’s finances can’t sustain a ratio of 2,850 students to 1,100 employees, saying she felt she was brought on to help the college through tough financial times.
Of that $1.4 billion, the college has an $887 million endowment — more than two-thirds of which can’t be spent by the college because of the wishes of the donors who provided it, Ambar and Oberlin College Vice President for Finance and Administration Rebecca Vazquez-Skillings testified Wednesday.
The largest check the college could write if it had to would be for $49.1 million from its unrestricted endowment funds, which is all that is available to pay a judgment, Vazquez-Skillings said on the stand.
She also testified the college has been paying up to $10 million in debt each year out of its endowment and spends about $9 million more each year than it takes in from student tuition, room and board and other sources of revenue.
The college has been deficit spending “for decades,” Vazquez-Skillings told Owen Rarric, an attorney for the Gibsons, during testimony Wednesday, and has been eliminating or buying out employees over the past several years. It also enacted a salary freeze two years ago, has been reducing benefits and eliminating unfilled positions, she testified.
All that doesn’t matter in this case of “national importance” that involved a “devastating loss suffered by the Gibson family,” said Lee Plakas, the lead attorney for the Gibsons, in arguments to jurors Wednesday
Hundreds of Oberlin College students protested the Gibsons for two days in November 2016 over allegations of racism, but the college never released a statement rejecting that belief, Plakas noted in court Wednesday — even though multiple Oberlin College alumni and community members of all races encouraged the college to do so.
Administrators also allowed a Student Senate resolution calling the Gibsons racist to remain posted on campus for months and former college president Marvin Krislov also testified in a deposition he never met with student senators to discuss their resolution, according to a video played in court Wednesday.
Plakas told jurors that “defamatory words in our country have become weapons as damaging as guns that shoot bullets” and that Oberlin College and its administrators acted with “actual malice” intending to harm the Gibsons and their business.
“More damaging than bullets once you’re defamed,” he said, with the damage enhanced thanks to how quickly the words spread on the internet. “There is no procedure to remove those words.”
Instead, he asked jurors to send a message that behavior like that of the college toward the Gibson family and their business will not be tolerated and will come with a hefty price tag if it occurs.
He recalled for jurors how Oberlin College administrators labeled the Gibsons and their supporters “idiots,” discussed in internal texts and emails how they wanted to “unleash the students” or “rain fire and brimstone” on Gibson’s and how Meredith Raimondo, the college’s vice president and dean of students, referred to the college’s business with Gibson’s as the “stupid bakery order.”
And while the wealth and resources of Oberlin College were irrelevant to the first phase of the case when discussing compensatory damages, “it’s gotta be relevant” now, Plakas said.
“Let’s teach the institution not to put gas on the fires,” Plakas told the jury, also asking them to consider recommending Miraldi award the Gibsons money to cover attorney fees. “They’re not above the law. They can’t make up their own rules.”
Oberlin College’s attorneys, meanwhile, tried to convince the jury that the college has learned its lesson and is being a better community partner by educating its students on how to be good neighbors and residents.
Oberlin attorney Rachelle Kuznicki Zidar had a different take, telling jurors that her client heard the message they sent when they ruled against the college.
“You have sent a profound message,” she told the jury. “Colleges across the nation have heard you” and Oberlin College in particular “never wants to sit at this table ever again.”
To prevent a repeat of what occurred at the college between November 2016 and January 2017, Zidar said Oberlin College will monitor more closely the activities of student organizations including the Student Senate, scrutinize how student activities funds are used, monitor internal communications and explain to students and the campus community its expectations for their behavior.
“Bad conduct has already been discouraged by the verdict you have rendered,” Zidar said. “We want to repair the harm.”
The events preceding the trial began when an Oberlin College student tried to buy alcohol at Gibson’s Bakery with a fake ID while hiding two stolen bottles of wine under his shirt in November 2016. After he fled the store, he and two other Oberlin College students assaulted a Gibson family member who tried to halt the crime.
The Gibsons are white and the students involved were black, and tensions quickly escalated. An estimated 200 to 300 students, claiming the bakery was racist and that the family discriminated against black shoppers, protested on West College Street for two days after the incident.
The college also stopped buying from Gibson’s Bakery for a time, though Zidar said Wednesday that was understandable as students were perceived as being unwilling to eat the food ordered from the store following the shoplifting incident.
The business relationship between the college and Gibson’s Bakery, which had existed since before World War I, ended in 2017 when the family sued for damages. All three students involved in the theft and assault eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanors and stated in court they were in the wrong and that the incident was not due to their race.
Jurors decided last week that the college inflicted emotional distress, interfered with business relationships and libeled the business, while Raimondo also was found to have libeled the family and their business by her actions during the protest and afterward.
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