ELYRIA – An Ohio judge has drastically reduced multimillion-dollar jury awards for business owners who accused Oberlin College officials of ruining their livelihoods by encouraging protests against them and branding them as racists.
On Thursday, Lorain County Judge John Miraldi in a written ruling said David Gibson should receive $14 million in compensatory and punitive damages, his father and family patriarch Allyn Gibson $6.5 million, and their Oberlin business, Gibson's Bakery, $4.5 million.
Oberlin College President Carmen Twillie Ambar and board of trustees president Chris Canavan told alumni during a conference call Thursday night that the school can pay the judgment amount if required but hoped it would be reduced during further legal proceedings, the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram reported.
The school was ordered earlier this month to pay $44 million – $11 million in compensatory damages and $33 million in punitive – to the Gibsons.
David Gibson has said the jury awards were a "clear vindication" for his family, their business and their reputations.
An attorney for the Gibsons argued that Ohio's cap on punitive damages were unconstitutional in this case.
But Ambar said on the conference call there were "very complicated and nuanced issues" involving the protests, and legal principals surrounding the lawsuit "were not appropriately applied."
The protests occurred after three black students were arrested for assaulting David Gibson's son, who is white and also named Allyn, after he caught one of them shoplifting two bottles of wine from the market in November 2016 and ran after him.
The students pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and read statements in court saying Allyn Gibson's actions that day were not racially motivated.
The lawsuit claimed that college officials encouraged and participated in the two days of protests following the arrests. The school for a month stopped buying baked goods from Gibson's and stopped again after the family filed suit in 2017.
Ambar said a lesson for students is that protest should not always be their first option during a disagreement.
"Just because it's permissible speech doesn't mean it isn't hurtful," she said. "We can't be a place that celebrates difference, but only the differences we agree with."