Jurors awarded the family owners of a bakery maligned by Oberlin College a whopping $33.2 million in punitive damages after the school accused them of racism in 2016. The same jurors had previously demanded the school pay the owners $11.2 million in compensatory damages.
Three years ago, a black Oberlin student tried to use a fake ID to purchase a bottle of wine at Gibson’s Bakery. The store employee, the grandson of the owner and descendant of the original 1885 bakery founder, refused to sell the alcohol and noticed two more bottles of wine under the student’s shirt. When the employee, Allyn Gibson told the student, Jonathan Aladin, that he was calling the cops, Aladin knocked the phone out of Gibson’s hand and ran from the store. Gibson chased Aladin down. Aladin and the other two students with him — Cecelia Whettstone and Endia Lawrence — began hitting Gibson.
The three students were charged for their crimes and admitted in court that racial bias did not play a role in the altercation.
Oberlin students and administrators, including interim vice president and dean of students Meredith Raimondo, protested the bakery and called the owners racist. The school even broke ties with the bakery, which it had purchased goods from previously.
The Gibsons sued and were awarded $11.2 million in compensatory damages last week. In response, Oberlin’s vice president, general counsel and secretary for the college, Donica Thomas Varner, sent a community-wide email disparaging the jury and its decision, writing the jurors missed “clear evidence” that Oberlin was innocent and that the school was in fact “held liable for the independent actions of their students.”
Jurors were not allowed to see the full email, but the Gibson family’s attorney was able to get them to hear parts of it through legal maneuvers. While trying to avoid paying millions more in damages, Oberlin filed a motion for a mistrial because the jury didn’t specifically portion out the compensatory damages to each member of the Gibson family. The school also claimed it was poor and that being forced to pay the Gibson family for defaming them would hurt students.
Jurors didn’t buy the sob story and demanded Oberlin pay the Gibson family an additional $33.2 million in punitive damages. Ohio law, however, caps the amount of punitive damages to twice that of the compensatory damages, so Oberlin actually only has to pay $22 million more to the Gibsons.
“All they ever asked from the beginning, from Oberlin College, was to use its power and influence and might to tell the truth, and that letter never came,” said the Gibson family’s attorney, Lee Plakas, according to The Chronicle-Telegram. “But the jury sent the letter that was louder and more visible and more public. I think the Gibson family is grateful for that and grateful for the jury to have the courage to be able to send a letter that no one else would send for the last almost three years.”
While Oberlin argued this judgment hurts free speech, it must be noted that there are legal consequences for free speech that involves defaming people based on knee-jerk reactions and extremist social justice views that deem any action against a black person by a white person as racist.