(Editor’s note: This story has been updated)
ELYRIA — A jury awarded the Gibson family and Gibson’s Bakery an additional $33.2 million in punitive damages in a judgment against Oberlin College, a week after finding that the college libeled the bakery during and after student protests there in November 2016.
Jurors deliberated on punitive damages for less than three hours Thursday afternoon and came back with their verdicts shortly before 3 p.m. Their total damage award was more than $44 million, plus an as-yet-undetermined amount of attorney fees payable to the Gibsons’ legal team.
That final award will be lowered over time because of Ohio laws that set a cap on punitive damages at no more than two times the total compensatory damages. The Gibsons were awarded slightly more than $11 million in compensatory damages by the same jury last week, meaning the cap on total damages — both compensatory and punitive — is about $33.5 million.
The verdict indicated that “truth does matter,” said Lee Plakas, lead attorney for the Gibsons and Gibson’s Bakery. The bakery on West College Street was the target of student protests in November 2016 after a student tried to buy alcohol with a fake ID, shoplifted wine and then assaulted a store employee who tried to stop the theft.
“In recent years in our country, truth has not mattered,” Plakas said. “Reckless words are as harmful as recklessly aimed bullets.”
Owen Rarric, another attorney representing Gibson’s, said the jury’s awards mean “a lot of messages sent to powerful institutions following their agendas in the face of truth.”
He called the jurors “brave souls” who along with the Gibsons would “not tolerate this in our society.”
Oberlin College’s attorneys did not have a public statement after the jury’s final verdict.
“Unfortunately we’re not in a position to make a comment,” said Ron Holman, one of the lead attorneys for Oberlin College, after Thursday’s verdict.
The jury of eight broke their findings down into three parts for each of the three plaintiffs who filed suit against Oberlin College in November 2017, and Lorain County Common Pleas Judge John Miraldi read the verdicts into the record:
n Finding that the college libeled and intentionally inflicted emotional distress on the bakery’s co-owner, David Gibson, the jury unanimously awarded him $17.5 million in punitive damages from Oberlin College and/or Meredith Raimondo, the college’s vice president and dean of students.
n Jurors unanimously awarded Allyn W. Gibson, David Gibson’s father, a total of $8.75 million in punitive damages for libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress by Oberlin College and libel by Raimondo.
n The jury also found that punitive damages of $6,973,000 were owed to Gibson Bros. Inc. from the college and Raimondo for libel, as well as from Raimondo for intentional interference with business relationships. The vote was 7-1 against punitive damages against Raimondo for interference, Miraldi said.
n Jurors also awarded the plaintiffs’ attorney fees on all claims, with Miraldi responsible for deciding those figures, he said previously.
Plakas said he expects Oberlin College to file motions to reduce the punitive judgment.
“There will be motions and arguments on those motions” regarding damages, he said.
After the verdict, David Gibson called the jury’s decision a “clear vindication” of his family, its business and reputation in the community.
Saying his family faced incredible stress and — choking up at points while speaking with members of the media after the verdict — he thanked the jury for giving up their time the past six weeks and “sending a clear message this has to stop.”
The jury “took care of this Goliath” — meaning Oberlin College — and took a chance on the argument that his family was being wronged.
Oberlin College “shouldn’t punish a family, community and business the way we were punished,” he said. “As a small business, all we have is our reputation.”
The jury’s award “gives us an opportunity to keep the lights on for another generation,” David Gibson said.
Plakas said during closing arguments to the jury that what happened to the Gibsons “should not happen to anyone.” Oberlin College, he told the jury, should be “deterred or discouraged from doing this again” by having to pay a large punitive award to the family business and its owners.
“What does it take for a company worth $1 billion to let them know you care?” Plakas asked the jury. Oberlin College, “they think they’re never wrong. That’s institutional arrogance.”
In her closing argument, Oberlin College attorney Rachelle Zidar rejected Plakas’ claim of “institutional arrogance,” saying the college still encourages students to shop at Gibson’s Bakery by listing it as a local business where students can spend their prepaid Obie Dollars.
There was “no actual malice, no hatred, ill will or spite” toward Gibson’s by the college, Zidar argued, as the college tried all along to stop the November 2016 protests.
“They weren’t motivated to hurt the Gibsons,” Zidar told the jury, even as college administrators sent what she called “vey unprofessional” emails and texts containing expletives, referring to the bakery and its supporters as “idiots” and “stupid.”
Since the protests and the controversy regarding Gibson’s Bakery, the college has instituted programs and efforts to ensure its students are aware they are members of the larger Oberlin community, Zidar said.
Major punitive damage awards “will impact others, including students, employees and members of the community,” she said, asking jurors to “allow all of us to move forward and not go backward.”
In a short rebuttal to Zidar’s remarks, Plakas told jurors that the college never issued an apology, made no administrative changes and “they blame the students (for the protests), then say ‘Don’t harm the students’” by punishing the college financially.
The lawsuit was filed a year after a November 2016 shoplifting incident in which a student tried to buy alcohol with a fake ID, then ran outside when confronted over two bottles of wine that fell from under his coat.
The student was chased from the store by Allyn D. Gibson, David Gibson’s son, who ended up on the ground where two more students joined in with the shoplifter to assault him before police arrived.
The students are black, while the Gibsons are white. Hundreds of Oberlin College students later protested, alleging the Gibsons were racists, and the college briefly stopped ordering baked goods from the store.
The students involved in the shoplifting and assault eventually all pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, and took responsibility in court while denying any racist behavior by the Gibsons or the business.
When the matter couldn’t be resolved, the Gibsons sued the college and Raimondo for libel, infliction of emotional distress and interference with business relationships.
Plakas said the college needs to stop treating its students as “customers” and instead of appeasing them at every turn, start instructing, guiding and educating them.
Had the college declared the Gibsons not racist after the events of November 2016, the whole matter could have been resolved without a massive legal judgment, Plakas said.
“An adult in the room could have resolved this from the beginning,” he said.
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