Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College trial motions: Bakery to prove “the college poured gasoline on the fire”
Judge: “The allegation is that Oberlin College, through their negligence, pushed their own ill will toward Gibson’s by having it spill into the community”
As the Gibson’s Bros v. Oberlin case gets set for the trial – now set to begin on Friday, May 3 – it is beginning to become more clear that this case of defamation accusations is set to be more of an early 21st century cultural dissertation than one of merely determining monetary damages.
In the hearing today over motions to exclude some, it was the issue as to whether the school “capitulated” to the demands of its students to accuse the small business of being racists. “The allegation is that Oberlin College, through their negligence, pushed their own ill will toward Gibson’s by having it spill into the community,” said Judge John R. Miraldi.
Lee Plakas, attorney for Gibson’s put it this way: “The college poured gasoline on the fire of what was already a difficult situation.”
On its surface, the events in question are simple. On Nov. 9, 2016, a day after the presidential elections, three Oberlin College students were arrested for shoplifting at Gibson’s and scuffling with an employee outside. A protest by students ensued after that, and Gibson’s is claiming the school libeled and defamed their reputation and money earning in the community. We covered a lot of this in more detail in a case preview a few days ago.
But what is clear is that both Oberlin College and the Gibson’s Bakery will be on trial.
As an example, at today’s “motions in limine,” it was argued before the judge ad nauseam whether the injuries suffered by 91-year-old, Allyn W. Gibson, one of the owners of the store, were admissible. What happened to the elderly Gibson is that someone rattled his back door a year after the event, causing him to fall from the fear of someone breaking into his home, and thus injuring his neck and vertebrae in his back.
The Oberlin College defense attorney argued this was just a normal crime and had nothing to do with anything. Might have just been a run-of-the-muck robber and had nothing to do with the racial imbroglio. The Gibson’s plaintiff lawyers set forth that this was a sign of the apocalypse Oberlin College had put forth on the Gibson family. And it had everything to do with the racial imbroglio.
The judge ruled they could admit some of the health issues for the 90+ Gibson’s co-owner, but limited having his health analyzed in court by emotional distress experts.
This similar line of thinking was pulled out on whether Gibson family’s apartment building they owned were not being rented to the high capacity they used to because of this shoplifting incident and protest. The school’s lawyers more-or-less said “No way,” and the plaintiff’s lawyers likewise responded with something along the lines of, “Obviously, the school was responsible for their lost property development opportunities.”
In the end, the judge said he would see which he would allow as the trial moved forward. Because Gibson’s is claiming a property loss worth $200,000 now will be worth $2 million down the road. The judge again made some limits on what he’ll allow in, and what he will not. For the most part, he sided with sanity.
But despite this attempt at sanity, in the end game, it looks like there are several issue that will be important in this case.
The Gibson’s attorneys seem to be moving toward an argument that the school backed the “Gibson’s is racist” sentiment because they needed to do so as an ideology enabler. Meaning, that in order to hold credibility with their more liberal students, and draw more of them in a very complex and competitive higher education environment, Oberlin College needed to come out as a knight in shining armor to the Social Justice Warriors living in their dorms and eating in their cafeteria. That’s the dog Gibson’s has in this hunt.
The school seems OK with all that, but they want to hold down the cost they might get hit with. Meaning, that they seem to be saying “Yes, maybe [fill in students, employees, professors here] did some of this defamation stuff, but they did it one their own, and this bakery shouldn’t get too much money just because they didn’t sell as many cookies in the years after the racism event.” Their neck injuries and apartments vacancies rentals and reputation problems are their own fault, not ours.
What will be interesting to watch is whether the jury feels that the fewer cookies sold is the primary issue, or whether having a very powerful institution claiming a business is racist because of how they handled being robbed, is enough for the jury to punish Oberlin College with some force.
The judge is not being asked to rule on evidence of the monetary value of Oberlin College, but expect that to be an issue for both damage assessment and the cultural thoughts by the jury as to what a small college is these days. For those who think Oberlin College might not have enough money to cover any big hit — being that they are a little, liberal arts college that tries to make ends meet — think again. And it is very clear the plaintiff’s attorney will make this point over and over again. The college side will try to make their wealth to be not big at all.
But it is big. According to their IRS form 990 forms (filed by all non-profits, and available on Guidestar.org), the latest one made public (2016) has Oberlin College with $944 million in “net assets and fund balance.” This is down a tiny bit from about $1 billion in 2015, but still substantial.
They also had 17 employees making more than $100,000 a year in 2016, including the president of the school making $945,000 annually when this shoplifting incident occurred. Suffice it to say, given the big endowment and even bigger net assets Oberlin College has in its bank account, making the claim that they are too poor to be punished and their students and faculty are just barely alive modern day educational cadavers won’t fly with any jury.
Again, that dog won’t hunt.
Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1
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