Oberlin College was ordered by a jury last week to pay $11 million in damages to a family bakery on campus that was falsely accused of racial profiling, but the monetary reward could triple during a punitive damages hearing scheduled for Tuesday.
As The Ohio Star reported Sunday:
The bakery, called Gibson’s Bakery, has operated on campus since 1885 and had a business relationship with the school until November 2017, when the bakery sued the school for numerous offenses, including libel, slander, and interference with business relationships.
The conflict started in November 2016, the day after President Donald Trump’s election, after a black male student was stopped for shoplifting. He and two of his female peers eventually pleaded guilty to shoplifting and aggravated trespassing, but the damage to Gibson’s Bakery was already done.
Students accused the business of racial profiling, organized protests outside of its storefront, and distributed flyers on campus that accused the bakery of having “a long account of racial profiling and discrimination.”
On Friday, an Ohio jury ordered the college to pay $11 million in damages to the bakery for siding with the student protesters.
In response to verdict, Oberlin College Vice President and General Counsel Donica Thomas Varner sent out a blast email to alumni in which she said she was “disappointed with the verdict” and regrets “that the jury did not agree with the clear evidence our team presented.”
William Jacobson, a Cornell law professor and CEO of Legal Insurrection, called this statement “baffling.”
“From the start of this case I have questioned the aggressive and demeaning attacks on the Gibsons as a defense strategy,” he wrote on Sunday. “I’m still shaking my head at the tone-deafness of the defense in belittling this family business.”
He went on to note that Varner’s statement is “baffling because the trial is not over,” noting that another $22 million could be added to the $11 million compensatory ruling.
“Someone with such deep experience as Varner should have known better than to send out such a statement in the middle of trial, particularly on the cusp of a punitive damages hearing. I understand the college felt the need to say something, but first do no harm,” Jacobson wrote. “Simply send out a mass email, since alumni were going to hear about the verdict through the news, indicating that the college cannot comment since the trial is ongoing, and that more information will provided after the trial is over. Or express a vague regret at the verdict and respect for the jurors. But for heaven’s sake, don’t make things worse.”
“The post-verdict email could be Exhibit A at the punitive damages hearing as to why the compensatory damages are not sufficient to send a message to Oberlin College and its administrators,” he added. “Whether it will be an exhibit we’ll find out on Tuesday.”
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Anthony Gockowski is managing editor of Battleground State News, The Ohio Star, and The Minnesota Sun. Follow Anthony on Twitter. Email tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo “Gibson’s Bakery and Candy Shop” by Gibson’s Bakery and Candy.