The legal case Gibson’s Bakery vs. Oberlin College started when a black underage student at Oberlin College attempted to purchase a bottle of wine with a fake ID. The store clerk, Allyn Gibson, noticed that the student was also attempting to steal two bottles of wine hidden in his coat.
Gibson chased the student outside and then tackled him, getting into a physical altercation with the student and two of his black friends. Gibson was injured and the three students were arrested and convicted.
Oberlin College then actively sided with protesters who accused the bakery of being “racist” and the owners of being white supremacists.
The college then suspended the purchase of baked goods from Gibson’s for around two months and, according to the store, “sent a message to the community that the college believed the store was racist, and… people had stopped shopping there or went through a back door.” Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo pressured Bon Appetit, a major contractor with Oberlin, to cease business with the bakery.
In a text message, Assistant Dean Chris Jenkins summed up Oberlin College’s position, stating, “I hope we rain fire and brimstone on that store.”
In the middle of June, Gibson’s Bakery won $44 million after it filed a defamation lawsuit against Oberlin College and the Dean of Students.
However, due to technicalities in Ohio statutory tort reform caps, the money awarded from punitive damages and non-economic damages was under threat.
In a three-page opinion, the court decided to apply the Ohio tort reform legislation to each of the plaintiffs: David Gibson, Allyn Gibson, and Gibson Bros. Inc.
The court ruled that David Gibson’s noneconomic losses must be reduced from $4 million to $600,000 ($350,000 on the libel claim and $250,000 on the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim). His award for punitive damages was reduced from $17.5 million to $11.6 million, after the court applied Ohio state law to pre-cap compensatory damages.
David Gibson received a total of $14 million in damages.
Next, the court ruled that Allyn Gibson’s noneconomic losses must be reduced from $3 million to $500,000 ($250,000 on the libel claim and $250,000 on the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim). His award for punitive damages was reduced from $11.75 million to $6 million, given that the court again incorporated pre-cap compensatory damages.
Allyn Gibson received a total of $6.5 million in damages.
Lastly, Gibson Bros. Inc., the partnership that operates Gibson’s Bakery, had its award for punitive damages reduced from $7 million to approximately $2.2 million.
Gibson Bros Inc. was then awarded $4.5 million in total.
The total amount of $25 million awarded to the plaintiffs is still better than the worst-case scenario of $9 million that was predicted by some legal analysts, such as Professor William Jacobson at Cornell Law School.
In a conference call on Thursday evening, Oberlin College President Carmen Twillie Ambar and Chris Canavan, the president of the Oberlin College Board of Trustees, told alumni that Oberlin College would manage even if it were required to pay the damages.
The Chronicle was able to retrieve quotes from this call and notes that President Ambar said that the issue of an apology “goes to the issue of race.” Without analyzing specifics, she claimed to have said that members of the college had a “variety of experiences with Gibson’s – ranging from ‘wonderful’ to ‘not wonderful.’”
“Those different lived experiences are absolutely true, but they are in conflict with each other. 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 did add, however, that protests should not be the first option students should attempt just because a situation does not turn out in their favor: “Just because it’s permissible speech [in reference to protests], doesn’t mean it isn’t hurtful. We can’t be a place that celebrates difference, but only the differences we agree with.”
It remains unclear what steps Oberlin College will take next as its attorneys have so far declined to comment on the decisions of the jury.
Nevertheless, Evan Gerstmann, a contributor at Forbes, predicts that “should Oberlin choose to appeal, the verdict could be reduced by quite a bit more.”
He adds that “an appellate court might overturn the punitive award altogether” because “punitive damages are reserved for actions that demonstrate ‘malice or aggravated or egregious fraud.’” In addition, judges can determine that punitive damages can be based on pre-cap damages or post-cap damages, which as noted before on PJ Media, could reduce the punitive damages from $20 million, as of now, to the worst-case scenario of $1.4 million.
Another hearing is scheduled on July 10 for the awarding of attorney’s fees to the Gibsons.