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Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College – Juror perceptions of reputation and social media emerge in questioning

Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College – Juror perceptions of reputation and social media emerge in questioning

Potential juror regarding social media: “Your name is now a brand, and our business and family are tied to that if it is harmed”

Given its complex nature, the jury selection for the Gibson Bros v. Oberlin College civil case trial will not be finished until Thursday, with the first witness not taking the stand until Friday.

The intricacies showed up on Wednesday when potential jurors were questioned on their views of the rights of criminal victims, freedom of speech, religious forgiveness of those who steal, and the nature of how does one react when one’s reputation is damaged by social media bullies.

If this sounds a bit extended for jurors whose main job will be to decide financial damages on private sector business wrongdoings, it is. But because the case blends in so many modern day interpretations of media, cultural affinity, and political leanings, this trial in Elyria, Ohio is breaking new legal ground in some regards.

The jurors were even asked today about the recent college enrollment acceptance scandal, where some wealthy parents have been accused of alleged crimes such as falsifying SAT scores, paying off university admissions officers and coaches, and lying about the athletic skills of their children to get them accepted into elite colleges. Several members of the jury in this case said they were “very aware,” and that the recent scandal made them “very angry.”

Oberlin College was not involved in those scandals, but it is considered elite in many ways. The 2019 undergraduate tuition, fees, and room and board for Oberlin College are $70,000 for their students, and there are a total of only less the 3,000 undergrads at the school. The school was founded in 1833, and has an endowment of close to $1 billion.

The reason that these higher education perceptions are important to the jury selection in this case, is that Oberlin College’s actions – and the perception of how the school acted — in and around Nov. 9, 2016 will play a big part in how the jury decides this case. What happened back then was an Oberlin College male student was caught shoplifting wine at Gibson’s Bakery and Market, and a scuffle with him and his two female student friends outside the store got the three arrested. This all happened the day after Donald Trump was elected president, and Oberlin College students seemed antsy for a little anger action that week.

A very large student protest did happen afterwards, claiming the Gibson’s – which has been operating since 1885 in Oberlin — was being racist in their actions of pursuing students who tried to steal from their store. Oberlin College allegedly joined in the protests in various ways, and that is where this civil defamation and libel case comes from. You can read about some of the background on this case here.

The court precluded the public from observing the morning jury questioning on Wednesday (the 70 jurors on hand made no room for anyone else), but after some jurors had been excused, we were permitted in the courtroom for the afternoon activity. It became quite clear the plaintiffs’ lawyers for Gibson’s were trying to seat independent thinking people who did not want to favor schools like Oberlin College.

For that reason, a potential juror who was in school to become an ordained minister was asked about both punishment and forgiveness, and how they intertwined (the future minister said both can, and should, be done). Jurors were also asked if they had ever been robbed and whether they thought it okay to pursue the person that robbed them (they all answered yes, if the robber wasn’t armed). They were also all asked how they would respond to being bullied online by social media haters (“Your name is now a brand, and our business and family are tied to that if it is harmed,” said one juror).

According to several sources, far more prospective jurors were excused because of admitted favoritism to Gibson’s (based on local media coverage of this case), than those who said they were more on the side of the college.

The only sticking point for the jurors, was deciding the monetary value decision if they found the defendants in this case, Oberlin College and its Dean of Students, had wrongly defamed Gibson’s. Some jurors thought that the higher the dollar amount they would have to approve would require a higher standard of proof of defamation. For example, some thought if the case was worth $50, it wouldn’t need as much defamation proof as a case that was worth $1 million.

That seems logical to many, but it goes against the legal precedent. The judge and lawyers made sure the prospective jurors understood that the two decisions (if defamation occurred, and how much it was worth), were unrelated to each other legally. In other words, the jury needs to find out if defamation occurs first, and if they do, then move on to the monetary punishment phase after that.

Only a few jurors were excused by challenges by the attorneys or the judge’s discretion, and the final choices for jury exclusion will happen tomorrow morning. One juror worked for a software company that had Oberlin College as a client (he was removed), while another woman’s daughter would be going to Oberlin College’s band camp this summer (she stayed). But it is too early to tell which side has any jury selection advantage at this point.

Ultimately, eight jurors and two alternates will be chosen. That is expected to be finished Thursday morning, with opening statements to occur by both sides that afternoon. The first witnessed are expected to be called Friday.

The case is expected to last until the end of the month.

Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1


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I really appreciate the level of detail you and all of the LI team put into trial analysis. As a lay person, this is an unknown world to me, but having this window into how trials and suits are done gives me a bit of idea of what is really going on with these.

Thank you and keep up the good work.

It became quite clear the plaintiffs’ lawyers for Gibson’s were trying to seat independent thinking people who did not want to favor schools like Oberlin College.

That doesn’t sound like a useful innovation. Lawyers want jurors who are easily manipulated by lawyers. (Call it “convinced by lawyers” if you prefer.) It’s not an attorney’s job to make the case harder for his clients to win, and that’s what will happen with jurors who are in danger of thinking for themselves.

    Milhouse in reply to tom_swift. | May 9, 2019 at 2:01 am

    That depends on how sure you are of your case. If you think your case should obvious to any fair-minded person, then your main fear is that easily-manipulated jurors will be swayed by your opponent’s oratory, so you don’t want them; you want people who can’t be manipulated by you or your opponent, and will therefore of their own accord see things your way.

    mailman in reply to tom_swift. | May 9, 2019 at 3:12 am

    Its common sense…why would you put people in a jury who would favour your opposition. I would be surprised if Oberlin wasn’t trying to do the same thing. After all, its something we ALL would do.

This specific case notwithstanding, hang the entire Academy up by their Buster Browns.


Our gracious bloghost excluded, of course.

I truly appreciate the coverage Mr. McGraw. So much so, that I pried open my wallet and made a small donation to LI (and I will probably make another next month). Very balanced coverage of a dilly of a pickle between town ‘n gown.

I live in a college town as well . . . and the tensions occasionally pop up . . . mostly around property taxes the VERY WEALTH UNIVERSITY pays or doesn’t pay for its incredibly valuable land . .. of course, the reason the town is so wonderful and prosperous is because of the University.

The mutual benefit of different parties acting in their own self-interest via commerce and trade is a core value of classically liberal economics. One would think folks could work it out . . . but unfortunately there’s not a whole lot of that in the world these days.

This Gibson’s thing is so more interesting because one can see the various perspectives so clearly . . . and while so many civil disputes are negotiated with modest dis/satisfaction for all, this one has at least one party who truly, really wants to be 100% right (which doesn’t happen so much in the real world of messy disputes). IMO, the Rolling Stones nailed 50 years ago, because “You can’t always get what you want”.

Our son will be matriculating in late August, and I suppose this will still be a topic then. Thanks again.

This is the sort of real law blogging that greatly benefits readers. May it long continue.

Whatever happened to the idea that juries should number 12?

    Milhouse in reply to ray. | May 9, 2019 at 8:47 am

    When has such an idea ever existed? Common law juries did happen to have 12 members, but that number was never thought of as essential; it developed completely by accident. According to the Supreme Court, the minimum size of a jury in the USA is six.

      Geologist in reply to Milhouse. | May 9, 2019 at 3:27 pm

      Milhouse, I thought that the Supremes held that six jurors was sufficient, not that six was the minimum number that would be sufficient.

      I know that in Nevada, we sometimes use 4 jurors, but this is state court, not federal court.

        Milhouse in reply to Geologist. | May 9, 2019 at 7:11 pm

        Ballew v Georgia held unanimously that six is the minimum for criminal juries, even in state court.

        Civil juries are a different story. As far as I know the courts hold that 7th amendment is not incorporated into the 14th, so it’s up to each state whether to even have civil juries. Therefore if they choose to have them they can set whatever rules they like.

    gmac124 in reply to ray. | May 9, 2019 at 11:03 am

    “Whatever happened to the idea that juries should number 12?”

    I thought all juries consisted of 12 jurors until I was selected for jury duty with my local county court and found out they only use 6. Of course this court deals mostly with traffic violations and non-felony crimes. Our district court which handles the felonies uses a 12 person jury.

      artichoke in reply to gmac124. | May 9, 2019 at 12:21 pm

      I was on a jury in Florida for a capital (because third-strike) case. There were six jurors plus one or two alternates.

      We acquitted. We saw through the prosection’s witness tampering, and there was other reasonable doubt too. I’ve subsequently seen several cases in the press that looked like efforts to get those second and third strikes.

How can anyone support the university’s charges of racism for capturing thugs trying to steal from the store. The real problem is that the university will accept any black person who meets the minimum requirements.

    cmmitch357 in reply to ConradCA. | May 9, 2019 at 6:25 pm

    Furthermore, if you cannot afford sundries at the bakery and therefore resort to shoplifting, why are you spending $70k/year to attend Oberlin?

    Milhouse in reply to ConradCA. | May 9, 2019 at 7:20 pm

    Easy. We take it as a given that people of all races and colors shoplift in equal proportions. It would be racist to think otherwise. So if blacks are 1/8 of the population and there were three black shoplifters there must have been 21 non-black ones who were not caught. Why? Obviously because Gibson’s is only keeping an eye on black customers and so they can’t get away with what others can. That’s racist. QED. (Those non-black shoplifters who are never detected function much like dark matter, which theory tells us must exist, but we can’t detect it with our senses and equipment.)

ConradCA – OC would like to to think so, but their actual enrollment numbers show a much lower POC population than you would expect.

Milhouse- Oberlin Police statistics show Gibsons shoplifting cases are proportional to the ethnic make up of the city.