The lead attorney who won a multimillion-dollar jury award against Oberlin College said Friday that Gibson’s Bakery and the Gibson family will continue their push for a true accounting of the issues at hand in the case.
Lorain County Common Pleas Judge John Miraldi on Thursday reduced the more than $44 million judgment against Oberlin College to $25 million, based on damage caps in Ohio law — an issue one of the lead attorneys for the Gibsons said likely will be resolved by an appeals court.
In an interview, Lee Plakas said he understood Miraldi’s reasoning for not taking on the argument that damage caps, in particular for defamation by libel or slander, are unconstitutional.
Miraldi “recognized it’s the job of the appellate judges to declare the statute in this case unconstitutional,” Plakas said.
The judge also told the attorneys during the trial that it was possible the case might make some new law. Plakas said that’s possible.
Should the college appeal, “we will appeal,” he said. “We are interested and positive in the prospects of having this statute declared unconstitutional.”
The college presented no evidence of racial profiling or discrimination by Gibson’s Bakery at trial, and the Gibson family “wants nothing other than to put this lawsuit behind them and go back to doing what they’ve been doing since 1885,” Plakas said.
Plakas said state law allows jurors to impose the death penalty, but “doesn’t trust a jury of citizens to impose an appropriate lesson on a billion-dollar enterprise” like Oberlin College.
“If you can do it in a death case, you should be able to do it in a civil damages case,” Plakas said. “The whole purpose of punitive damages is to discourage inappropriate conduct. Punitive damages have to bear some relationship to the might and power and resources of the offending party.”
College officials have said in multiple interviews that the issue is about free-speech rights of its students, but the college never was on trial over free speech, one of the lead attorneys for the Gibsons said Friday.
“It’s really disconcerting that the college is doing everything possible to revise history (by saying) it’s about the students and students’ rights,” Plakas said. “Well, that’s not what the case was about.”
Gibson’s Bakery and its owners filed the civil lawsuit against Oberlin College following protests at the bakery in 2016. The demonstrations stemmed from the arrest of three black college students after an incident at the bakery.
A black Oberlin College student tried to buy alcohol with a fake ID and shoplifted two bottles of wine from Gibson’s Bakery in November 2016 was chased out of the store by Allyn D. Gibson, who is white and is the son of owner David Gibson.
Oberlin police responding to the store found Allyn D. Gibson on the ground, being assaulted by the shoplifter and two other black students, who were arrested. They pleaded guilty to misdemeanor crimes in August 2017 and said in court the Gibsons were not racist and within their rights to chase shoplifters.
Oberlin College students protested outside Gibson’s Bakery for two days following the arrests of their peers, leading to the college dropping its daily baked goods order from Gibson’s as students declared the Gibsons racist.
The Gibsons sued Oberlin College and one of its deans in November 2017. Following a six-week trial that ended earlier this month, a jury found against the college for libel, intentional infliction of emotional distress and interference with business relationships.
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