ELYRIA, Ohio – Lorain County Common Pleas judge John Minaldi began the punitive phase Wednesday of a trial involving Oberlin College and a local family owned bakery by denying a motion asking for a mistrial.
Jurors last week awarded members of the Gibson family $11 million during the trial’s first phase.
The Gibsons sued the college because of student demonstrations that took place in 2016 after a member of the Gibson family stopped an African American shoplifter in their bakery/market.
Students demonstrated afterwards, falsely claiming the act was racially motivated.
The shoplifter later pleaded guilty to the crime but the Gibsons claim the demonstrations irreparably defamed their business and jeopardized their business, causing them great economic losses.
During the trial’s first phase jurors agreed with attorneys for the Gibsons who argued the college helped facilitate the student demonstrations.
Jurors on Wednesday begin hearing testimony and arguments in a punitive phase where, by law, the same jury could award the Gibsons as much as an additional $22 million.
On Tuesday, attorneys for Oberlin College asked the judge to declare a mistrial in the first phase and order a new trial, claiming the breakdown of the $11 million award was not specific enough for jurors to calculate a punitive award.
On Wednesday, Judge Minaldi rejected that motion, allowing the punitive phase to begin.
During opening statements on Wednesday, Lee Plakas, an attorney for the Gibson family told jurors “ there can be no crime without appropriate punishment.”
The Gibson’s attorneys argue that Oberlin College continues to reject any suggestion that the school is responsible for the damage that was done to their family business.
“What will it take to get them to change their attitude? We have to teach them they are not above the law and at some point you have to admit you were wrong” Plakas told jurors on Wednesday.
In their opening statements, attorneys for Oberlin College argued that jurors already sent “shock waves” to colleges around the country in awarding the Gibsons $11 million in the trial’s first phase.
“You have spoken. You have sent a profound message. We have heard you, and believe me colleges across the country have heard you,” said Oberlin College Attorney Rachelle Kuznicki Zidar.
Zidar told jurors the college is taking steps to improve, including more closely monitoring the activities of student organizations and scrutinizing how the college responds to student protests.
Directly addressing members of the Gibson family Zidar said, “The college doesn’t hate you.”
She concluded opening statements on behalf of the college saying, “punitive damages would only adversely impact students who had nothing to do with the demonstrations.”