Ohio Bakery Awarded $44 Million in Libel Case Against Oberlin College

An Ohio bakery that sued Oberlin College for libel over accusations of racism has been awarded a total of $44 million in damages.

Source: WSJ | Published on June 17, 2019

cropped shot of confectioner putting cream on cupcakes

The family behind Gibson’s Bakery sued the liberal arts institution and a school administrator after the Oberlin bakery was the focus of protests following the arrest of three black students involved in a November 2016 shoplifting incident. The three students later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges.

A Lorain County jury on Thursday awarded Gibson’s Bakery $33.2 million in punitive damages. Last week, that same jury awarded the bakery, which was founded in Oberlin in 1905, $11 million in compensatory damages.

The actual punitive damages awarded in the case will likely be reduced to around $22 million because Ohio law caps punitive damages to no more than twice that of compensatory damages.

In its lawsuit, the bakery said student protests outside its store and a flier that claimed the business “is a racist establishment” had a “devastating impact” on both the bakery and family.

The bakery accused Oberlin Dean Meredith Raimondo of not only distributing a flier urging the boycott of Gibson’s Bakery, but also using college-owned copiers to print the material. At one point, the college ended its catering contracts with the bakery, though it later resumed those.

“The jury recognized that what happened to the Gibsons should not have happened to anyone, but could happen to everyone if the truth no longer matters,” said Lee Plakas, an attorney for the Gibson family.

“I think they wanted us to hear that college administrators need to return to becoming adults in the room rather than becoming appeasers,” he added.

Mr. Plakas said he expects an appeal.

A lawyer for Oberlin referred questions to the college.

In an emailed statement sent to Oberlin students and alumni Friday morning, President Carmen Twillie Ambar wrote that the legal process was far from over. “Let me be absolutely clear: This is not the final outcome,” she said. “This is, in fact, just one step along the way of what may turn out to be a lengthy and complex legal process.”

Donica Thomas Varner, vice president and general counsel for Oberlin College, has said neither the college nor the dean defamed Gibson’s Bakery or its owners, nor had they endorsed statements made by others.

“As we have stated, colleges cannot be held liable for the independent actions of their students,” Ms. Varner wrote in an email to the Oberlin community last week.