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Cops and Courts

Gibson's Bakery v. Oberlin College: Jury should get case today

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    Overflow from the Lorain County Court of Common Pleas spilled into the hallway where people listened to the closing arguments through a doorway that was propped open Wednesday.

    BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE

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    Attorney Lee Plakas speaks on behalf of Gibson’s during closing arguments to a packed courtroom Wednesday.

    BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE

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ELYRIA — The jury in the civil trial between Gibson’s Bakery and Oberlin College has a chance to take on “Goliath” and force change, according to an attorney for the bakery.

During closing arguments Wednesday morning, Lee Plakas, the lead attorney for Gibson’s Bakery, told the jury members they had the power to send a clear message to the college and higher learning institutions.

“The power that you have enables you to reach up to the most powerful institutions, whether it’s Goliath or an 800-pound gorilla in the region, and say, ‘Come down here. We have something to say to you. We don’t approve of your conduct, and it has to change,’” Plakas said to the jury.

Plakas told the jury that the outside world is watching the trial. He said the importance of the case can be seen by the number of attorneys in the courtroom for the trial and the fact that the courtroom was filled to capacity with more people standing in the vestibule of the courtroom trying to listen to the closing arguments.

“I’ve been told that this case and your verdict will be a tipping point to determine how institutions, and especially institutions of higher learning, affect all of us,” Plakas said. “Every year they send out a class of students to come into our world and interact with us. The training they are given and the examples that have been set by the college affect our entire country.”

Wednesday was the final opportunity for attorneys to present their cases to the jury in a trial that has lasted more than a month.

Gibson’s Bakery sued the college and the college’s Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo for libel, interference with business relationships, interference with contracts, intentional infliction of emotional distress and trespass in 2017. The bakery also is suing the college for negligent hiring, retention and supervision.

Richard Panza, an attorney representing Oberlin College, said the college and Raimondo have been portrayed as the villains in the case.

“Goliath was a warrior,” Panza said. “We’re a college. We’re an educator. It’s our job to keep our people safe and to make sure we stay within the limits of the law.”

Panza also said the libel case is an important one for free speech. He said the plaintiffs have centered their case on the sympathies and emotions of the jury, rather than the evidence in the case.

“He doesn’t care about that. He just wants to mix it up. He wants to appeal to your sympathy and emotion,” Panza said of Plakas. “That’s why he’s not directing your attention to the evidence. That’s why we hear about things that occurred after the publications, but in regards to the claim are totally irrelevant. He knows that. He’s a good lawyer, but he’s banking you don’t know that.”

The rift between the bakery and the college began in 2016 when a student tried to buy alcohol with a fake ID and shoplift from Allyn D. Gibson, who is the son of the bakery’s owner, David Gibson. 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, and the incident escalated. All 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.

In the two days following the shoplifting incident, Oberlin College students protested in front of the bakery and passed out flyers urging people to boycott the bakery because of the bakery’s history of racial profiling. Oberlin College stopped ordering from the bakery after the protests but resumed in January 2017.

The college once again ceased ordering from Gibson’s after the lawsuit was filed in November 2017.

Panza said what caused the damage to the Gibson’s business is not the actions of the college and Raimondo. Instead, he said it was the protests by the students on Nov. 10 and 11, 2016.

However, Judge John Miraldi has ruled that the protest were Constitutionally protected speech and has said that no legal claims can be made against them, Panza said.

Because of that, the plaintiffs had to “create a villain,” Panza said.

“It came out of the realization that whatever damage came out of the protests, the college is not responsible for it. Dean Raimondo is not responsible for it. No one is in fact responsible for it,” Panza said. “Yes, that’s too bad, but that doesn’t justify creating a villain so you can blame everything on her.

“I tell you, that’s exactly what the plaintiff is trying to do.”

The plaintiffs, however, say the college is responsible because administrators and faculty “aided and abetted” the student protests by assisting, encouraging, supporting and facilitating the protests.

Plakas also said the college tried to force the Gibsons to drop the charges against the three students as a condition to resume business between the two sides and to give first-time student shoplifters a pass instead of calling the police.

Plakas also said the college “chose to sacrifice Gibson’s to appease its customers,” — the students who attend the school.

Panza argued that Oberlin College is not responsible for the actions of its students and could not interfere with the students’ Constitutional right to protest.

“Were they (the students) right?” Panza asked. “I don’t know, but they have the right to protest.”

The jury also must determine that without the actions of the college and Raimondo, the damage to Gibson’s would not have occurred, Panza said. He then argued that had Raimondo and college administrators not been on the scene of the protests, the protests would have still occurred and Gibson’s still would have been damaged.

Plakas reiterated that he believed the college aided and abetted the defamation of the Gibsons and their businesses. He also said the Gibsons don’t want the jury’s sympathy, but instead “they want justice.”

Without the jury’s help, Plakas said, the lights at Gibson’s Bakery will go out after 134 years in business.

Plakas asked the jury to award nearly $13 million to the David Gibson, Allyn W. Gibson and Gibson’s Bakery. He said he felt that number was “conservative.”

The jury has yet to be given instructions on the law. Those instructions were supposed to have been given Wednesday afternoon, but were delayed. Jury instructions are expected to take place at 10 a.m. today. After that, deliberations will begin.

Contact Scott Mahoney at (440) 329-7146 or smahoney@chroniclet.com. Follow him on Twitter @SMahoneyCT.

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