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Gibsons unlikely to get $44M from Oberlin College

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    FILE -- Lorain County Common Pleas Judge John Miraldi will have a central role in determining final damages in a the lawsuit against Oberlin College in which a civil jury found $44 million and attorneys fees.

    KRISTIN BAUER/CHRONICLE

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ELYRIA — It is unlikely that Gibson’s Bakery and the family that runs it will see anywhere close to the $44 million awarded them by a Lorain County jury, a legal expert said Friday.

Ohio law limits both compensatory damages and punitive damages in such lawsuits and gives judges wide leeway to reduce the jury’s awards. Additional reductions may be made through the appeals process, or the verdict could likewise be thrown out or amended, Case Western Reserve University School of Law professor Andrew Pollis said Friday.

“I’d be surprised if Oberlin College didn’t seek a motion or argument to lower the compensatories,” he said. “It sounds to me like the compensatory damages here are also excessive.”

In the letter sent to alumni, which was obtained by The Chronicle-Telegram, Oberlin College President Carmen Twillie Ambar wrote that the jury’s decision “is not the final outcome.

“This is, in fact, just one step along the way of what may turn out to be a lengthy and complex legal process,” she wrote.

Read: Oberlin Alumni letter predicts long and complex legal process

According to Ohio Revised Code, compensatory damages for noneconomic losses to recover damages for injury or loss to person or property “shall not exceed the greater of two hundred fifty thousand dollars or an amount that is equal to three times the economic loss” as determined, in this case, by a jury, of the plaintiff up to a maximum of $350,000 for each plaintiff in the case or a maximum of $500 for each occurrence.”

Only damages for permanent physical injury, the loss of limb or organ or “permanent physical functional injury” that renders the victim unable to independently care for them have no caps under that section of the law.

Jurors also awarded the Gibsons’ attorney fees on all their claims, and it is up to Lorain County Common Pleas Judge John Miraldi to decide those figures.

What it all means is that Thursday’s verdict could end up being much more symbolic than financial, Pollis said.

On June 7, the jury awarded $5.8 million to David Gibson, $3 million to Allyn Gibson and $2.2 million to the bakery, faulting Oberlin College and its vice president and dean of students, Meredith Raimondo, for libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Raimondo also was found at fault for interference with business relationships.

The compensatory damages totaled a little more than $11 million. Therefore, any reduction in compensatory damages upon appeal or by Miraldi’s order would automatically lower the amount of punitive damages, which are capped by state law at twice the compensatory damages awarded.

Judges don’t typically tell jurors about caps on damages and let the jury assess the evidence before rendering a verdict and making damage awards, Pollis said.

Judges “always have the power to knock the verdict down if the jury goes above the caps,” along with an obligation to consider whether the jury’s award is excessive under state or federal law, Pollis said.

There is also the possibility that Miraldi could undo the jury’s verdict if he doesn’t believe it was supported by the evidence.

“The question of whether or not the jury got it right is still up for grabs,” Pollis said. “The judge has the power to undo the jury’s verdict if the evidence didn’t support it.”

The lawsuit was filed a year after a November 2016 shoplifting incident in which a student tried to buy alcohol with a fake ID, then ran outside when confronted over two bottles of wine that fell from under his coat. David Gibson’s son Allyn D. Gibson followed the student out of the store, where he was assaulted by the student and two other students, all of whom are black.

Oberlin College students then protested the store for two days, alleging a pattern of racist behavior by the Gibsons, and the college briefly stopped ordering from the store. The two institutions had a business relationship stretching back more than 100 years.

Pollis said he finds it “very unlikely” that Oberlin College intentionally tried to harm Gibson’s Bakery and the Gibson family “without a good-faith basis that what the bakery did was wrong.”

Intentional infliction of emotional distress — which the jury found Oberlin College liable for against David Gibson and his father, Allyn W. “Grandpa” Gibson — also seemed to Pollis to be a strange outcome. He said intentional infliction of emotional distress is “something on the order of killing somebody’s dog while they watch.”

“I just don’t think that’s going to survive the appellate process,” he said.

Pollis also said the verdict could have been the jury’s way of “thumbing their nose at a higher education institution” seen as “elitist” or uncaring about a small business in a town that has seen some town-versus-gown controversy in the past.

“Depending on the jury, that can work for you or against you, and in the case for Oberlin College, it worked against them,” he said.

In the end, Pollis said, the verdict is “only as good as a three-judge appellate panel is willing to affirm.”

“Judges have an obligation to look at the evidence after the trial” and determine if the large damage award was a result of the jury’s “passion or prejudice,” he said.

“I’d rather be the plaintiff than Oberlin College at this moment,” Pollis said. “The size of this verdict is helpful in the attention it brings. The size of the damage award was the reason why it became such a national story, why it got scrutiny and caused it to be settled for significantly.”

Contact Dave O’Brien at 329-7129 or do’brien@chroniclet.com. Follow him at @daveobrienCT on Twitter.

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