OBERLIN, Ohio — In the eyes of jurors, there were 44 million reasons why the Gibson family was wronged by Oberlin College.
To the family’s attorneys, the college's words were like bullets. They demanded respect and accountability.
So when protesters descended outside the Gibson’s Bakery in downtown Oberlin, chanting and marching against ill-conceived notions of racism, it became imperative to respond.
The Gibson’s did that in court, where a jury this month awarded them more than $44 million in damages from Oberlin College.
The Gibsons' Canton-area attorneys -- Lee Plakas and Owen Rarric -- spoke in-depth with Channel 3 News on Monday, touching on the message behind the verdicts and America’s ever-changing social landscape.
It started with the throng of protesters in 2016, in the days after three blacks were involved in a shoplifting incident after leaving Gibson’s Bakery, a fixture in Oberlin since 1885.
Charges of racism spread from Oberlin College to the internet with professors and administrators spurring them on, the Gibson family contended at trial. But those days of protest were dark, threatening.
“I think it was surreal,” Rarric said. “I think it was something in their lives that they never expected to happen. To see this happen before their very eyes, with everything they’ve worked for, everything they ever stood for, being destroyed right before their very eyes, is something that is very difficult to take. And it’s been very destructive.”
A Lorain County jury awarded $5.8 million to owner David Gibson, $3 million to his son, Allyn Gibson, and $2.2 million to the business. They ruled against Oberlin College and vice president Meredith Raimondo on civil claims of libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Plakas said the six-week trial exposed the impact and power of the internet, which has yet to adequately discern between truth and illusion, and the role Oberlin administrators played in the eyes of their students.
“This is a situation that never should have happened to the Gibsons, but could happen to almost anyone in today’s society, especially with the speed and destructive power of the internet,” Plakas said.
While Oberlin continues to fight the verdict, Plakas said the jury’s multi-layed message is clear.
“I think they sent two messages,” he said. “The first is that truth still matters and as I said, that recklessly aimed words are as destructive as a recklessly aimed bullet and there’s consequences for that, there has to be.
“And the second message that I think the jury wanted to send was that they’re hoping this is a national tipping point and that it sends a message to administrators in higher education to remind them that what they’re running is not a nursery school, it’s a college.”
The incident unraveled in November 2016 when a black Oberlin student tried to buy alcohol with a fake ID. The student then fled with two bottles of wine. The Gibsons followed the student out of the store, where Allyn Gibson, was assaulted by the student and two other students. All three students are black.
Afterward, dozens of Oberlin College students protested outside the store for two days, claiming the Gibsons routinely targeted blacks. Some college administrators added fuel to the racially-tinged claims by passing out fliers containing claims of years of racism by the Gibson family.
Furthermore, the college added to the claims and, for a period of time, stopped ordering products from the store.
The students later admitted guilt to misdemeanor charges.
As a result of the protests, the Gibson’s say their business suffered.
Rarric said Oberlin had ample chances to set the record straight and to stop the protests against the Gibsons.
“[But] they didn’t do it. The jury did it for them.”