ELYRIA — A Lorain County judge has reduced the total amount of damages won by the Gibson family and Gibson’s Bakery in Oberlin in their recent lawsuit to just more than $25 million against Oberlin College.
In a three-page judgment entry handed down Thursday, Common Pleas Judge John Miraldi reduced by almost half the jury’s $44 million award, which had consisted of more than $11 million in compensatory damages and $33 million in punitive damages.
Those damages were awarded to the plaintiffs following a six-week trial in which jurors found Oberlin College and its vice president and dean of students, Meredith Raimondo, damaged the century-old business relationship the college and bakery shared, as well as libeled the Gibson family.
The reduction in damages was not unexpected, several legal experts who have been following the case told The Chronicle-Telegram.
The three plaintiffs in the case — David Gibson, Allyn W. Gibson and Gibson Bros. Inc. — will receive a total $25,049,000, according to a tally of the figures in Miraldi’s judgment.
Attorneys for Oberlin College have so far declined to comment on the decisions of the jury. A message seeking comment on Miraldi’s ruling was left Thursday for Lee Plakas, one of the lead attorneys for the Gibsons.
In a brief filed with the court Wednesday, attorneys for the Gibsons argued that caps on punitive damages are unconstitutional as they apply to the plaintiff’s case.
Asking that Miraldi keep the punitive damages awarded to his clients at the $33.2 million awarded by the jury, attorneys for the Gibsons argued that “the only factor that can be considered in capping punitive damages is the amount of compensatory damages.”
Per Miraldi’s order, total damages to be awarded to David Gibson will be $14 million.
That includes $11.6 million in punitive damages, $1.8 million in economic damages and $600,000 in noneconomic damages — $350,000 for libel and $250,000 for intentional infliction of emotional distress, Miraldi ruled.
Punitive damages are limited to two times the amount of compensatory damages awarded by the jury, Miraldi ruled, citing Ohio law.
Jurors originally awarded David Gibson a total of $5.8 million in compensatory damages for libel against Oberlin College and Raimondo, and against Oberlin College for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The jury also awarded David Gibson $17.5 million punitive damages June 13.
David Gibson called that ruling “a vindication” for his family and a statement they were not the racists that students portrayed them to be in two days of protest in November 2016.
Allyn W. Gibson
Miraldi reduced damages owed to Allyn W. “Grandpa” Gibson to a total of $6.5 million, including $6 million in punitive damages and $500,000 for noneconomic loss — $250,000 each for libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The jury originally awarded Allyn W. Gibson a total of $11.75 million:$3 million in non-economic damages June 7, and an additional $8.75 million in punitive damages June 13.
Gibson Bros. Inc.
Gibson Bros. Inc., the partnership that operates Gibson’s Bakery, will receive $4.549 million, according to Miraldi’s order.
That includes $2,274,500 on the claims for economic loss ($1,137,250 on each claim for libel and intentional interference with business relations), and an additional $2,274,500 in punitive damages — again twice the amount the jury awarded in compensatory damages.
That’s down from the $6,973,500 awarded in punitive damages by the jury June 13 to the business partnership and bakery itself.
Ambar speaks to alumni
In a conference call with Oberlin College alumni Thursday night, Oberlin College President Carmen Twillie Ambar and Chris Canavan, president of the Oberlin College Board of Trustees, told alumni that Oberlin College will be able to manage if it is required to pay the judgment.
“We do expect and hope that worst-case scenario won’t come to fruition, given some of the legal options we have available,” he said on the call, citing mitigation in future court hearings, damage caps “and the like.”
“What we don’t want to do is jeopardize the viability of the institution,” Canavan said.
Ambar said there were “very complicated and nuanced issues” involved in the protest that were “not necessarily created by this case,” and said she and college legal counsel continue to believe that legal principles were “not appropriately applied.”
She pointed specifically to community, citizenship when it comes to students taking personal responsibility for their actions; legal issues of free speech, defamation and libel; and race.
A black Oberlin College student tried to buy alcohol with a fake ID and shoplifted two bottles of wine from the store in November 2016 before he was chased out of the store by Allyn D. Gibson, who is white and is the son of owner David Gibson.
Outside, Allyn D. Gibson was assaulted by that student and two others who also are black before Oberlin police officers arrived. All three students pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, admitted criminal responsibility, publicly denied the Gibsons are racist and said Allyn D. Gibson was within his rights to chase the shoplifter out of the store.
The arrests were followed by two days of protests by hundreds of Oberlin College students, after which the college stopped ordering baked goods from the bakery for approximately a month. That order ended for good when the Gibsons filed suit in late 2017.
Despite the students involved in the theft and assault taking responsibility in court, Ambar said she felt the initial incident was “mischaracterized” or not fully explained — “shoplifting or a fake ID, there’s an issue about what happened there,” she said. From the students’ perspective, it was a case of one student running into Tappan Square while being pursued by Allyn D. Gibson, Ambar said.
College officials didn’t know students planned to protest, she told the alumni. It was the Student Senate that wrote a resolution condemning Gibson’s Bakery and students who drew up a protest flyer.
“The college did not create those documents,” Ambar said, which she said are protected by free speech.
As dean of students, Raimondo was required by the college handbook to be at the protests to act as a liaison with police and to ensure the protest remained lawful and safe — not to inflame passions against the Gibsons despite later texts and emails show at the civil trial that contained “inappropriate” language by college officials, Ambar said.
As for the issue of an apology, Ambar told alumni that “goes to the issue of race.” Without going into specifics, she said members of the college community have had “a variety of experiences with Gibson’s — ranging from “wonderful” to “not wonderful.”
“Those different lived experiences are absoutely true, but they are in conflict with each other,” Ambar told the alumni. “The college didn’t issue an apology because it was hearing these different perspectives and didn’t think it should apologize for issues it didn’t create.”
Ambar said one lesson students should learn is that protest isn’t always be the first option when things don’t go your way.
“Just because it’s permissible speech, doesn’t mean it isn’t hurtful,” she said. “We can’t be a place that celebrates difference, but only the differences we agree with.”
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