Punitive damage verdict against Oberlin College “was like a seismic wave moving quickly through the courtroom”
The view inside the courtroom as the $33 million punitive award was rendered in favor of Gibson’s Bakery.
When the punitive damage jury verdict was read in court yesterday in Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College, it was like a seismic wave moving quickly through the courtroom.
It was that big, bigger than anyone had expected. The added punitive damages was $33,223,500, charged to Oberlin College. That was $33 million in damages added on to the $11.2 million they had already awarded the small business family and its owners as compensatory damages.
The Gibson family was there in full force — with four generations ranging from age 11 to age 90.And surprisingly, the jury decided fairly quickly, with only about two hours of deliberation. Some theorized that the jury knew what they wanted to do on this immediately when they were sent to their deliberation room, but took some extra time because they wanted to finish their court-paid pizza lunch.
What was surprising in some regards was why the jury awarded such a high amount. The punitive damages law in Ohio requires “malice” to be at play with the defendants, meaning they had a “reckless disregard” for the truth. This was explained to the jury in great detail by the judge, and everyone in the courtroom was somewhat surprised that the jury came back with a verdict saying that, not only did Oberlin College libel and defame this small business and family, they did so in a manner that was intentional.Most of the observers in the court were people who had known the Gibson family for generations, and had been to the long trial as many days as they could. One woman near had a quizzical look in her eyes and a big smile on her face, and said happily, “Did they just say that much money?”
The Gibson family was visibly shocked by the amount as well, as most in the courtroom were thinking the jury’s final punitive damages verdict in the case might top out at maybe $10 million. The fact that it was triple that amount means in many ways that perhaps the jury understood that the whole country was watching. The family hugged and cried a bit, and David Gibson joked to me that his hair had gone from slightly brownish-red to gray during this ordeal, and he was starting to get some of the old hair color back now that the jury verdicts had come down to exonerate his family’s reputation.
He gave me handshake, and then hugged his 11-year-old grandson, Cashlyn.“We never wanted any of this to go to court and have to spend all this time in litigation,” David Gibson said exclusively to the Legal Insurrection. David Gibson is the lead plaintiff in the case and is the principal owner of the business.
“People have no idea on how much stress this has had on our family and business for almost three years. But from the beginning, we just didn’t understand why they were punishing us for something we had nothing to do with.”
“We appreciate that the jury understood what we had gone through, and I think they were saying to the entire country that we can’t allow this to happen to hard-working, small business people whose lives are defined by their business, their family, and their community,” he said.” What the college was doing was trying to take away all those things from us, and we fought hard against that.”
The final tally on punitive damages that Oberlin College was ordered to pay for by the jury is thus: $17,500,000 million for David Gibson, $8,750,000 for Allyn W. “Grandpa” Gibson, and $6,973,500 for the bakery business.
Allyn W. Gibson, age 90 and the patriarch of the business that has been in Oberlin since 1885, wanted to make sure people understood the Gibson family and business were not against students at Oberlin College in any way.
“I have been here my whole life and I love the students and the energy they bring to our community, and people who know me know I always love being with them,” he said. “Students can be great people or they can be bad, just like all of us can be, but they need guidance at the age, and they weren’t getting it when this all started.”After the initial protest that said Gibson’s was racist, Oberlin College did nothing to put out the fire, and in fact added to it. That is more than likely what made the jury think they school had acted with “malice’ toward Gibson’s, the primary piece of the punitive damage puzzle. Rather than put out a statement that Gibson’s was not racist, the school put out a letter on Nov. 11 from the school president and the dean of students that said, “Regarding the incident at Gibson’s, we are deeply troubled because we have heard from students that there is more to the story than what has been generally reported. We will commit every resource to determining the full and true narrative, including exploring whether this is a pattern and not an isolated incident.”
That statement was not part of the defamation claim, but set a tone of indifference. And it was that indifference by the school, plus emails and texts that showed vitriolic attitude in them, that perhaps caused the jury to go very high on the punitive damages.
According to the evidence presented, the school never did determine “any full and true narrative” and found out as most everyone in the community knew, that the Gibsons had never had and history of racism on any kind. But the school still cut the business off from its cafeteria delivery business (bagels, pastries and pizza dough). Students stopped shopping at the store. Revenues dropped by a huge amount (from about $900,000 in 2016 down to about $500,000 in 2018) and Oberlin College never did anything to rectify the situation.
The damage was worse than most realize. On a walk through campus several weekends ago, this reporter talked to about 20 students at random on campus, and every one of them said they would never shop at Gibson’s because the business and family are racist. When shown the police reports and the fact that the three shoplifters plead guilty and claimed “no racial profiling” was involved, most of the students I spoke with said, “Cops lie.”
Some of the defenders of Oberlin College have claimed that the Gibsons’ were just in it for punishment on this case, and never tried to settle. That could not be further from the truth. According to Lee Plakas, lead attorney for the Gibsons’, a letter was sent before the case was filed in Nov. of 2017 asking for at least some talks on settlement and no answer was sent back (this reporter has seen it).
In early 2018, according to Plakas, two days of talks with a mediator were done, but nothing close to a settlement was achieved. In fact, the talks were initiated by the Gibson’s and “We were ready, willing and able to not have this case go to trial, but Oberlin College and their insurance company seemed to have no interest in settling this case,” Plakas said.
“As they have done throughout this case, they thought that they were above everyone else, and that the rules and working to settle such an egregious case of defaming a good family like the Gibsons’ was beneath them,” he added.What this punitive award means is both simple and complicated in many ways. Under Ohio law, punitive awards are capped in most cases at double the compensatory amount already arrived at. In this case, that would mean the punitive damage could be no more than $22.4 million, half of the compensatory damages laid on Oberlin College and far less than the $33 million waylaid on the school today by the jury.
However, there are exceptions in the legislation passed in Ohio in 2008 on the punitive damages cap (ironically it was passed to protect small businesses from having high damages awarded against them, not for them, as in like this case), and Judge John R. Miraldi, the Lorain County Common Pleas judge in this case, will decide on how much of the $33 million will go to the Gibsons.
But it will be more than likely get down closer to the $22.4 million level. Plus, the jury said that the attorneys’ fees that Gibsons’ would have had to pay out of its verdict awards (often at 30% of jury verdict awards), would now have to be paid by Oberlin College. That could be an additional $10 million put on the school’s plate. Judge Miraldi will decide that as well, not any jury.
For those who have speculated that these jury verdicts will be pared down substantially or denied by an appeals court, that also is not good speculation. Yes, there will likely be appeals, but in order to win an appeal in a civil tort case, Oberlin College would have to prove that Judge Miraldi and the jury made egregious decision that went against Ohio law. For those of us in the courtroom, and for legal observers who know more about this than me, appeals reversals are unlikely. And Miraldi was very careful in setting the bar pretty high on evidentiary rulings.
However, if this does ever get to the Ohio Supreme Court, that could be about two years down the road, not a decade.
What was interesting was the jury itself. This jury had none that lived in or near the town Oberlin, and most were from the more populace cities of Elyria (pop. 54,000) and Lorain (pop. 64,000). It was half male and half female, and was a mix between over-40 and under-40. None appeared to be of minority ethnicity like African-American or Hispanic, though a few may have been mixed. But again, this was about as average and middle-class group of people representing the Midwest as one could find.
But in the end, this was a case that will be one that is pointed to as a “tipping point” of sorts. Plakas repeatedly told the jury that this was bigger than them, and that they could make a statement to the country “that this type of behavior is unacceptable to any community because a big collegiate institution like Oberlin College has a responsibility to their community and neighbors, and not just to themselves.”Lorain County has been hit in the past few decades with heavy numbers of manufacturing jobs leaving and a huge drop in housing values from the foreclosure crisis of the Great Recession. That recent history may have had a play in how the jury viewed this case; Lorain County is a strong defender of the little guy against the big economy that seems to have forgotten about them. In this case, the bully wasn’t on Wall Street or cheap Chinese imports, but a big organization with $1 billion in assets in their own backyard.
Plakas told Legal Insurrection why he joined up to represent the Gibson family in a case that early on seemed to be difficult to win. “I was stunned early on when I saw the early letters and emails from the college on this matter that favored their biased ideology over what should have been some semblance of intellectual balance,” he said.
“What [Oberlin College] did to the Gibsons’ was irrational … and that part of it really angered me as juts a private person who saw what was happening to the Gibsons. You would expect a highly regarded university, with a long history of being a great school in this country, would have disregarded what we would think of as a basic thought process,” Plakas continued.
“We worked hard on this, and I am proud of our legal team so much,” he said. “But the Gibson family were the ones that worked the hardest. They knew from the beginning that the only way to get justice, to get their name restored, was to work hard and sacrifice. They had to lay off workers and go without salary, and most would have just quit and folded up the business. But they didn’t.”
“They did what a lot of people wouldn’t do, and the country should realize that what they did will benefit many of us in many ways for many years.”
[Featured Image: YouTube]
Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1
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