On June 13, a jury in Lorain County, Ohio, awarded $33.2 million in punitive damages to a bakery and its owners, based on a lawsuit filed by the bakery against Oberlin College and Oberlin’s Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo.
The jury concluded that Oberlin College and Raimondo were liable for defamation; that Oberlin was liable for infliction of intentional emotional distress; and that Raimondo was liable for intentional interference of business relationships, reported the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
The case started on Nov. 9, 2016, one day after the presidential election. In the town of Oberlin, Ohio is a family-owned bakery and grocery store called Gibson’s. The business has been operating in Oberlin since 1905, and students and faculty members of Oberlin College regularly patronize the store.
However, on Nov. 9, a student named Jonathan Aladin attemped to buy wine at Gibson’s using a fake ID and also fled the establishment dropping two bottles of wine he allegedly had inside his coat. One of the store owner’s, Allyn Gibson, followed Aladin and there was a scuffle. Two of Aladin’s companions reportedly joined in the scuffle.
The police quickly arrived and Aladin and his companions, Cecelia Whettstone and Endia Lawrence, who are black, were arrested. The three suspects eventually pleaded guilty to several misdemeanor charges and declared in court, “I believe the employees of Gibson’s actions were not racially motivated. They were merely trying to prevent an underage sale.”
Nonetheless, some leftist students at Oberlin launched protests against the bakery, alleging that it is a racist establishment and allegedly engaged in racial profiling.
One of the flyers distributed at the protests, as documented in the court records, states that Gibson’s Bakery “is a RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.”
Gibson’s legal team alleged that “defendants were involved in the preparation, review, copying, dissemination, and publication of the defamatory flyer. … Oberlin College agents, including the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, copied the flyer on Oberlin College copier machines, so that they could be distributed to large numbers of people. Raimondo distributed the flyer to Oberlin College students, faculty, the public and even the media.”
The bakery’s lawyers also alleged that Raimondo and other Oberlin College professors “raised their fists in support of the demonstrations, while shouting the defamatory statements on a bullhorn, thereby assuring that a large audience would hear their defamatory statements.”
There were other allegations from both sides. A jury started to hear the case in early May 2019. On June 7, the jury found for the plaintiffs, and on June 13 the jury awarded $33 million in punitive damages to the bakery and its owners. In addition, the cost of the plaintiffs' legal fees are likely to be charged to Oberlin, according to news reports, and that could push the total damages above $40 million.
Cornell Law Professor William A. Jacobson, the founder of Legal Insurrection website, said of the jury’s decision, “Oberlin College tried to sacrifice a beloved 5th-generation bakery, its owners, and its employees, at the altar of political correctness in order to appease the campus ‘social justice warfare’ mob.
“The jury sent a clear message that the truth matters, and so do the reputations and lives of people targeted by false accusations, particularly when those false accusations are spread by powerful institutions.
“Throughout the trial the Oberlin College defense was tone-deaf and demeaning towards the bakery and its owners, calling the bakery nearly worthless. The jury sent a message that all lives matter, including the lives of ordinary working people who did nothing wrong other than stop people from stealing.”
One of the plaintiffs and bakery owners, David Gibson, told Legal Insurrection, “People have no idea on how much stress this has had on our family and business for almost three years. But from the beginning, we just didn’t understand why they were punishing us for something we had nothing to do with.”
“We appreciate that the jury understood what we had gone through, and I think they were saying to the entire country that we can’t allow this to happen to hard-working, small business people whose lives are defined by their business, their family, and their community,” he said. “What the college was doing was trying to take away all those things from us, and we fought hard against that.”
For the $33.2 million in damages, they were awarded $17,500,000 million for David Gibson, $8,750,000 for Allyn W. “Grandpa” Gibson, and $6,973,500 for the bakery business.
In a June 14 email, Oberlin College President Carmen Twillie Ambar, pledged to keep fighting. "This is not the final outcome," she wrote. "This is, in fact, just one step along the way of what may turn out to be a lengthy and complex legal process. I want to assure you that none of this will sway us from our core values. It will not distract, deter, or materially harm our educational mission, for today’s students or for generations to come."
"We will take the time we need to thoughtfully consider the course that is in Oberlin’s best interests," said Ambar. "I will update the community as we make these decisions. I am confident that when we resolve this matter, it will look substantially different than it looks today."
Oberlin College has locked its Twitter account.