ELYRIA — A Lorain County jury on Friday awarded the owners of Gibson’s Bakery more than $11 million from Oberlin College in finding that the college inflicted emotional distress, interfered with business relationships and libeled the family-owned bakery in downtown Oberlin.
The jury also found that Meredith Raimondo, the college’s vice president and dean of students, libeled the family and business.
“All the Gibsons ever wanted was for the truth to come out,” Lee Plakas, lead attorney for the Gibson family, said afterward. “All they ever asked from the beginning, from Oberlin College, was to use its power and influence and might to tell the truth, and that letter never came. But the jury sent the letter that was louder and more visible and more public. I think the Gibson family is grateful for that and grateful for the jury to have the courage to be able to send a letter that no one else would send for the last almost three years.”
The jury ruled for Allyn W. Gibson and his son, David Gibson, as well as the bakery itself — awarding $5.8 million for David, $3 million for Allyn and $2.2 million for the bakery.
The jury found in favor of David Gibson on both counts of libel against the college and Raimondo. The jurors blamed only the college for intentional infliction of emotional distress to David Gibson, clearing Raimondo on that count.
The jurors ruled in the same manner for the libel and infliction of emotional distress involving Allyn W. Gibson.
The jury also found for the bakery on counts of libel against both the college and Raimondo. Raimondo was held responsible for interference of business relationships while the college was cleared.
The attorneys for Oberlin College and Scott Wargo, Oberlin College director of communications, declined to comment after the verdict.
But members of the Oberlin College Alumni Association did receive an email from Donica Thomas Varner, vice president, general counsel and secretary of Oberlin College. The email — obtained by The Chronicle-Telegram — updated members on the verdict.
“We are disappointed with the verdict and regret that the jury did not agree with the clear evidence our team presented,” Varner wrote. “Neither Oberlin College nor Dean Meredith Raimondo defamed a local business or its owners, and they never endorsed statements made by others. Rather, the College and Dr. Raimondo worked to ensure that students’ freedom of speech was protected and that the student demonstrations were safe and lawful, and they attempted to help the plaintiffs repair any harm caused by the student protests.”
Varner thanked the jury for its attention and dedication during the trial. Varner said in the letter that “Our team will review the jury’s verdict and determine how to move forward.”
In Wednesday’s closing remarks, Plakas said the world would be watching the result of the trial, which would decide what institutions like Oberlin College would do. Owen Rarric, another attorney representing the bakery, said the verdicts sent a powerful message to the rest of the outside world.
“I think part of what we did here today is answer the question as to, ‘What are we going to tolerate in our society?’ “ he said. “We’re hopeful that this is a sign that not only Oberlin College but in the future, powerful institutions will hesitate before trying to crush the little guy.”
Gibson’s Bakery sued the college and Raimondo in 2017 after a 2016 shoplifting incident at the bakery devolved into protests and racial allegations.
A student tried to buy alcohol with a fake ID and shoplift from Allyn D. Gibson, David Gibson’s son. Allyn D. Gibson followed the student out of the store, and the two got into a physical altercation.
Two other students got involved, and police have said when they arrived the three students were hitting Allyn D. Gibson while he was on the ground.
Allyn D. Gibson is white and the students are black. The three students pleaded guilty in August 2017 to misdemeanor charges and read statements into the record acknowledging that Allyn D. Gibson was within his right to detain the shoplifter and that his actions were not racially motivated.
But in the two days immediately after the shoplifting incident, Oberlin College students protested in front of the bakery and passed out flyers urging people to boycott the bakery, alleging the bakery had a history of racial profiling. Oberlin College stopped ordering from the bakery after the protests but resumed in January 2017. The college once again stopped ordering from Gibson’s after the lawsuit was filed in November 2017.
David Gibson said Friday he was thankful his family can put the stress behind them and look forward to the future.
“I don’t want to be afraid to even work there anymore,” he said. “I just want this to send the message so that we can enjoy our community and the business that we’ve had for all these generations.”
Allyn W. Gibson agreed with his son David, adding that he’d like for his business and family to return to some form of normalcy.
“People (were too) scared to come in. It’s hard to believe it could get that way in a small town,” he said.
In May testimony during the trial, David Gibson said the protests “devastated” the bakery’s revenue, which forced staffing cuts. The bakery went from 10 to 12 employees with six to seven of whom were full time to six to seven employees and only one working full time, David Gibson testified during the trial.
This also included several family members working without pay. David Gibson and Allyn Gibson told the court they haven’t collected pay since the protests occurred, nor have David’s wife, son and grandson. David Gibson’s brother, who lives in Canton, works 40 to 60 hours a week at the bakery without pay.
The amount of money the Gibson family received was about $2 million short of the $13 million Plakas asked the jury to award before the verdict. The jurors may award the family more than that in a punitive phase — when the jury can consider what commonly are known as “punishment” damages — which begins Tuesday in Lorain County Common Pleas Court.
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