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After legal fight, Oberlin says it will pay $36.59M to Gibson’s Bakery

Legal News Reporter

Published: September 23, 2022

Oberlin University has announced that it has paid a $36.59 million judgment that a local bakery won against the school after the Ohio Supreme Court denied the school’s final appeal of the case.
The Ohio Supreme Court had turned down Oberlin College’s request to grant jurisdiction in an appeal of a 9th District Court of Appeals ruling upholding a jury award of over $30 million for defamation that local bakery Gibson Brothers Inc. had won against the college.
At the same time, the court also refused to hear Gibson’s cross-appeal. The 4-3 decision was published without comment.
The final amount of the judgment includes statutory interest.
Lead counsel Lee Plakas stated, on behalf of the family and the Gibson legal team that “after almost five years of legal warfare that brought an iconic 137-year business and its family to its knees, Oberlin has finally paid the amount of $36,590,000 for payment of the verdict against the College.
“Lorna Gibson, who vowed to her dying husband to continue the business into a 5th generation, said she is planning to use the funds to re-build the business––rehire employees, re-stock the shelves, repair and replace bakery equipment, rejuvenate the store, pay off the mortgages and debt she had to incur to keep the business afloat and do all things necessary to restore the business to a place where it could properly welcome and serve everyone in the community, including the college and its students.
The case, Gibson Brothers Inc., et.al. v. Oberlin College, et.al, (Case No. 2022-0583) had garnered national attention. The bakery had filed (and won) the original lawsuit after a series of incidents involving the bakery and the administration and students of the college.
Very briefly, an African American Oberlin student was caught shoplifting in Gibson’s bakery on Nov. 9, 2016. He was chased out of the store and tackled by the owner, David Gibson, who was subsequently stopped by two other African American Oberlin students. The three students subsequently admitted to shoplifting charges.
Before the students’ adjudication, though, several students protested the arrest of the shoplifters.
The protests spread, and a top school administrator got involved on the side of the students.
The dean of students authorized a print run of flyers accusing the bakery of racism and the school severed business relations with the bakery.
Gibson’s Bakery had a long-standing contract with the school to supply baked goods to the student cafeteria.
Suspending that contract, combined with a student boycott, essentially ruined Gibson’s cash flow. The bakery, represented by Canton law firm Plakas Mannos as lead counsel, filed suit against the college one year after the incident.
The complaint was filed in Lorain County Common Pleas Court alleging three separate torts against the college: Defamation (libel and slander), tortious interference with a contract and interference with business relationships.
In a story that made national news, the jury found in favor of Gibson’s on all three counts in the amount of $11 million in compensatory damages.
After a weekend break, the jury further found for the bakery for another $33 million in punitive damages.
In a later ruling in July 2019, the court ordered the school to pay $6.5 million in attorney’s fees. Subsequently, under Ohio law, the court reduced the award to a total of $25 million, along with the attorney fees.
In October 2019, Oberlin appealed to the 9th District Court of Appeals.
After oral arguments in 2021, the appellate court ruled in favor of the bakery on March 31, 2022.
Gibson’s had cross-appealed the amount of the punitive damages, trying to get the appellate court to rule that there should be no statutory cap on punitive damages in the state. That cross-appeal also failed.
Both parties took their appeals to the Ohio Supreme Court.
On Aug.30, The Supreme Court refused to grant jurisdiction to either party, ending the case and upholding the jury award.
Attorneys representing the college did not respond to a request for an interview for this story. In fact, no legal or administrative representative of the college has ever responded to a request for comment from this newspaper.
However, the school did release the following comment, sent by school spokesperson Scott Wargo: “The issues raised by this case have been challenging, not only for the parties involved, but for the entire Oberlin community. We remain committed to strengthening the partnership between the College, the City of Oberlin and its residents, and the downtown business community. We will continue in that important work while remaining focused on our core educational mission.”
Attorneys for the bakery, however, had a lot to say.
Plakas said that the entire defense proffered by the school was ill-taken, as were the school’s public statements as the litigation dragged on.
“Unfortunately,” said Plakas, “although the three Oberlin students admitted their criminal conduct in open court and confirmed their detention and arrest was not racially motivated, the college still refuses to admit any wrongdoing or issue an apology to the Gibsons. [An apology from the school] would engender a community reconciliation. Many Oberlin alumni and case observers are calling upon Oberlin to issue an apology, but thus far Oberlin has refused to do so.”
Plakas said that the school’s legal defenses did not hold water—something that the jury saw throughout the course of the trial.
“The school kept saying this is a First Amendment case,” said Plakas. “But there were no real First Amendment claims in this case.”
Truth is always a defense for defamation claims, he said, but the school never presented any proof that the bakery had a history of racist statements, even though that was one of its claims.
“We knew that there was no evidence of a history of racism from the bakery,” he said. And so, ultimately, did the jury.
There were several amicus briefs filed with the Supreme Court, but Plakas said that they all echoed Oberlin’s false racism claims.
In addition, proof of the count against the school for business interference “was obvious to the jury” with the suspension of the contract between the parties.
As of this writing, the bakery continues to have financial difficulties, said Plakas, as the school still has their contract under suspension.
“The family pleaded with the school to resume the contract. But the school told Gibson’s that they would drop only the suspension if the bakery would allow any student a one-time pass if they were caught shoplifting,” he said. That, he said, was ridiculous.
But now the case is over and Plakas said that he is satisfied with the outcome—even though it took a long time and endangered the existence of the bakery.
 “A source of pride in this David v. Goliath battle is that the legal team, comprised of attorneys from Akron/Canton firms Plakas Mannos and Krugliak Wilkens, was able to overcome the onslaught directed by Oberlin when it used its billion dollar asset position to hire four to five law firms and over 20 attorneys to try to excuse its conduct over the last five years.”
View the entire docket with links to all filings here: https://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/Clerk/ecms/#/caseinfo/2022/0583