ELYRIA, Ohio – A Lorain County jury deliberated only about two hours on Thursday before telling Oberlin College it owes a local family more than $33 million in punitive damages stemming from student demonstrations against the family’s bakery-market in November of 2016. That’s in addition to the $11 million already settled upon.
A member of the Gibson family stopped an African American student who was shoplifting in their store. The shoplifter later admitted to the crime.
In demonstrations afterwards, other students labeled the Gibsons as racist and portrayed their action as racially motivated.
The demonstrators demanded the school end a long-standing contract with the bakery to provide baked goods for a cafeteria there, and the college acquiesced, even though the evidence showed that administrators knew the family’s actions were not racially-motivated and after receiving messages from alumni and supporters of the Gibsons insisting the college intervene with the smear tactics of the students.
Jurors last week agreed with the family’s attorneys that the college helped facilitate the demonstrations which harmed both the Gibsons’ reputation and their business, and awarded the Gibsons $11 million in damages from the school.
On Wednesday, the same jury heard arguments in a punitive phase of the trial, during which the family’s attorneys told them it was important to send a message to all colleges and institutions across the country that actions have consequences.
“The greater emphasis in my mind and the greater value is the deterrence and the discouragement of this not only continuing to happen to the Gibsons but just as importantly to make sure that the example is made so that others are deterred or discouraged from doing it,” said Gibson family attorney Lee Plakas, in closing arguments on Thursday.
Attorneys for the college insisted in their closing arguments that the earlier $11 million verdict was enough to send a clear message and that a punitive award would only hurt others by impacting the school’s ability to provide scholarships and financial assistance as well as the business it conducts in the community.
“A punitive damages award will impact people that had nothing to do with this process, nothing to do with these events — moneys going from Oberlin College to students who could not otherwise afford an education,” said Oberlin College attorney Rachelle Kuznicki Zidar.
But the jury returned a verdict on Thursday that ordered the school to pay more than $17 million in punitive damages to David Gibson; almost $9 million to his father, Allyn; and nearly $7 million more to the family business for a total punitive judgement against Oberlin College of more than $33 million plus attorneys fees.
“When they inflict harm on members of the community and don’t accept responsibility for that harm every once in awhile you are going to have some brave souls like the Gibson family and this jury who will call them out on it,” said Gibsons’ attorney, Owen Rarric, after the verdict was read.
The judgement brings the total awarded to the Gibsons in their suit against Oberlin College to a staggering amount of more than $44 million.
An emotional David Gibson, afterward, said he believes the jury did send an appropriate message to Oberlin College and every other institution that is paying attention.
“The jury, I just am so thankful for them in sending a message that this does have to stop. They shouldn’t punish a family and a business and a community the way we were punished,” said an emotional David Gibson.
“I think it’s a clear vindication of us and they have clearly said that my father, my family, we have no history of racism. We weren’t in the past and we aren’t now and the jury has made that clear. I do appreciate that and, further, I appreciate the jury took care of this Goliath. That took a lot of guts on their part. They have made it so we have a chance and an opportunity to keep the lights on,” added Gibson.