Photo: Andy Morisson for the Toledo Blade
Reporting for the Toledo Blade, I was the sole reporter sent to cover live a national story about a libel trial concerning allegations of racism that awarded a local bakery $44 million dollars—$11 million in compensatory and $33 million in punitive damages—from Oberlin College. Spending several days in Elyria, OH, I not only reported from the courtroom as one of the few journalists breaking news about legal arguments and the final verdict, but I also sourced students and community members of the town of Oberlin—population 5,200—to see how they were dealing with being thrown into the national spotlight. In addition to several courtroom stories written on tight deadline, I brought back on-the-ground community sourcing for a long-form narrative analysis piece about the case.
Jury hits Oberlin College with a total $44.2 million in damages
Toledo Blade, June 12 2019
ELYRIA, Ohio — In a small courtroom in Lorain County, attorneys litigating from both sides made sure the jury — barred from the media — knew the national waves their verdict was making about a case between Oberlin College and a family-owned bakery.
On Wednesday, the court reconvened to hear arguments pertaining to the second phase of the bifurcated case: Following the compensatory damages phase, the jury needs to decide on punitive damages.
Last week, the jury arrived at a compensatory dollar amount of $11 million to be paid by Oberlin College, which they determined to be the economic and noneconomic harm and loss suffered by the Gibson family, owners of Gibson’s Food Mart and Bakery.
Punitive damages can be set to any amount under $22 million, which is twice the compensation amount awarded.
“There can be no crime without appropriate responsibility and punishment. In our country, no one can expect or demand special treatment. … The fabric of our country would fall apart if, in fact, you are a victim who tries to stop or protect against crime, [and] you are retaliated against,” said Lee Plakas, lead attorney for the Gibson family.
Punitive damages are meant as both a punishment for the college and a deterrent for similar future conduct — not only for Oberlin, but to keep “any other institution from committing similar acts,” Mr. Plakas said. He said that the deterrence aspect of the case is the most important aspect for himself and the nation.
He told the jury that the punitive damages determined will “protect everyone else in our country, in our state, in our community – protects them to ensure that they don’t have to go through what the Gibsons went through.”
“If indeed there was interest, if indeed you come across stories in the New York Times, or the Washington Post, or FOX News on TV or CNN or Wall Street Journal … why do you think they would have been and are so interested?” Mr. Plakas asked the jury.
Mr. Plakas submitted to the jury that national interest in the case has arisen because of a “national tipping point” spurred by twin purposes: How society is recognizing a “changing atmosphere” in the country and how words have become weapons, and the importance of our educating youth properly.
Rachelle Zidar, an attorney for Oberlin College, reminded the jury of the power they have and the magnitude of their verdict nationwide. “Ladies and gentlemen, you have spoken. You have sent a profound message. We have heard you. Believe me when I say, colleges across the country have heard you.”
Ms. Zidar said the school knew something needed to change even before the jury issued their verdict. She said the school is more closely monitoring activities of student organizations, including how the college responds to student protests. She said the school is increasing oversight over its student senate and the resolutions it passes, improving internal communications, and making it clear “from day one” that the students will be held accountable for their actions and have a duty of good citizenship.
The college introduced a new orientation program named “Community 101: An Obie’s Guide to Being a Good Neighbor” in August, 2018, for the new Oberlin first-year class. The program, which featured speakers including the chief prosecutor, city manager, and police chief, is designed to help new students “think through their responsibilities as residents of the city of Oberlin,” according to an email sent out by the college’s president.
“What are some things that aren’t malice? Well obviously, negligence is not malicious. It’s wrong; you can hold somebody liable for it. But it’s not malicious,” Ms. Zidar said. “It’s not bad judgment. It’s not aloofness. It’s not misguided ideology. It’s not a failure to investigate. It’s not foul language. It’s not being inconsiderate, being rash, being impulsive.”
The Gibson’s legal team capitalized on the argument that was disallowed in the first compensatory phase of the trial: the wealth and resources of Oberlin College.
“Everything is relative,” Mr. Plakas told the jury, saying that paying over $100 is a “mosquito bite” for a millionaire.
Jury hits Oberlin College with a total $44.2 million in damages
Toledo Blade, June 13 2019
ELYRIA, Ohio — The family at the center of a defamation lawsuit against Oberlin College hugged in celebration on Thursday when a jury granted them $33 million in punitive damages on top of the $11 million compensatory award they’re already owed by the liberal arts school.
The newly decided punitive damages — money awarded to plaintiffs in a civil lawsuit to punish defendants and deter future bad conduct — were broken down by the jury into $17.5 million for David Gibson, $8.75 million for family patriarch Allyn Gibson, and $6.97 million for their company, Gibson Bros, Inc.
The family sued Oberlin following an incident on Nov. 9, 2016, in which a black college student attempted to shoplift wine from Gibson’s Bakery. A grandson of the family also named Allyn Gibson, who is white, followed the student out, leading to a physical altercation in front of the store. The student and two friends — who were also black — were then arrested.
Protests erupted on campus in the days following, with students claiming that the robbery charge and subsequent conflict were racially motivated, as well as claiming a history of racial profiling in the store.
The arrested students later backtracked on those claims and pleaded guilty to misdemeanors in court, and the Gibsons brought a lawsuit against both Oberlin College and Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo. The suit alleged libel and accused the school of supporting the students’ harmful actions and cutting economic ties with the bakery.
Last week a Lorain County Common Pleas Court jury ruled in favor of the Gibson family, awarding them $11 million for past and future economic and non-economic harm and loss. Then Oberlin College’s financial hit got even worse on Thursday when the institution was ordered to pay the punitive damages — plus undetermined attorney fees.
“For a family like ours, when you are in small business, your business, your family, your reputation is all one ... That’s what takes us to the next day, and we’re proud of it,” David Gibson told The Blade after the verdict.
Gibson attorneys underscored that punitive damages are meant to discourage not only Oberlin, but any other institution from committing similar acts.
Oberlin Attorney Rachelle Zidar argued a punitive damages award is not necessary to motivate change, as the college and its dean have already learned from the experience.
She also reminded the jury that any punitive damages will “impact people who have nothing to do” with the trial, including employees and future students on financial aid.