A jury has ordered Oberlin College to pay more than $44 million in actual and punitive damages after finding that the college defamed a local bakery, an Oberlin Ohio institution in business since 1885, and its owners and inflicted emotional distress on them.
The jury’s award followed a six-week trial that detailed each minute of a bitter saga that began in November 2016 with the arrests of three black Oberlin students at Gibson’s Bakery near the college’s campus in Oberlin, Ohio. The plaintiffs in the libel suit were Gibson’s Bakery and its owners.
According to court records, a black Oberlin College student attempted to purchase wine with a fake ID. Allyn Gibson, a relative of one of the owners, suspected the student was attempting to steal wine and chased after and detained the student after he attempted to flee. The other two students intervened and all three students were subsequently arrested.
When news broke of the incident, some students of Oberlin College arranged a protest of the bakery accusing the bakery’s owners of racism. According to the complaint, Oberlin College staff, including deans and professors, engaged in the protests as well. Students of the college also petitioned the college to cut all ties with the bakery.
The defamation claims surrounded a flier that the plaintiffs alleged the Oberlin Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo and other college staff members participated in creating and disseminating to the community and the media that contained libelous statements accusing Gibson’s Bakery of being a “RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION” and urged people not to buy from the bakery. The flier also listed a number of the bakery’s competitors and urged individuals to patronize those businesses instead. A copy of the complaint, including the flier, is available here.
The college sought to keep the flier from the jury by arguing that it was “constitutionally protected opinion,” an argument which the judge rejected. The judge also denied the college’s request to find the bakery employees as “limited purpose public figures,” in order to subject the plaintiff’s libel claims to a higher burden of proof by requiring a finding of actual malice to recover.
At trial, the plaintiffs presented evidence not only of the libelous statements that were made in the flier but also that as a result of the defamatory statements, the bakery’s earnings went from approximately $900,000 in 2016 to a projected $433,000 this year. The plaintiff’s claims sought to hold the college liable for its own actions and for the support it provided to others in “aiding and abetting” the spreading of libelous materials.
The aiding and abetting claims are based on a 2003 case, Cooke v. United Dairy Farmers, in which an Ohio appeals court ruled that “As a general rule, all persons who cause or participate in the publication of libelous or slanderous matter are responsible for such publication. Hence, one who requests, procures, or aids or abets, another to publish defamatory matter is liable as well as the publisher.” The judge noted this case repeatedly in pretrial proceedings and provided an “aiding and abetting” instruction to the jury.
The case presented unique First Amendment defense issues not typical for First Amendment cases involving universities. Typically, it is a third party seeking to assert protection under the First Amendment from some action by the university. In this case, however, it was the university that was seeking to assert the protections of the First Amendment for its own speech. In the end, the jury rejected the college’s arguments and found that the college had harmed the reputation of the bakery awarding compensatory damages of $11.2 million. In addition, the jury awarded punitive damages (meant to punish the defendant rather than compensate the plaintiffs) of $33.2 million. The bakery and its owners likely will not receive the entire amount of punitive damages awarded as Ohio law caps punitive damages awards at no more than double the compensatory damages awarded, although there are exceptions to this cap that the judge can consider when determining the final amount of the award. In addition to the compensatory and punitive damages, the jury instructed the judge to have the college pay the plaintiffs’ attorney fees, which could add another $5-10 million to the total award.
Whether you are being accused of harming someone’s reputation or you believe someone else has harmed your reputation by making defamatory statements, it is important to consult an experienced slander law and cyber-smear law attorney. Our DuPage County defamation attorneys defend individuals’ First Amendment and free speech rights to post on Facebook, Yelp and other websites information that criticizes businesses and addresses matters of public concern. You can view here a federal court decision where we prevailed in a libel per se claim asserting the innocent infringer defense. Here is an arbitration decision where we successfully defended our client by presenting evidence that our client’s 20+ YouTube videos containing negative opinions about a used car dealer were substantially true and were protected opinion under the First Amendment. We recently required a defendant who publicized an allegedly false lawsuit regarding our client to provide an apology and full retraction as part of a confidential financial settlement following our filing of a $16 million suit for libel per se in federal district court.
Our Chicago and Wheaton defamation attorneys also represent and prosecute claims on behalf of businesses throughout the Chicago area including in Wilmette and Evanston who have been unfairly and falsely criticized by consumers and competitors in defamatory publications in the online and offline media. We have successfully represented businesses who have been the victim of competitors setting up false rating websites in order to publish defamatory content about our business clients. Beyond slander and libel law, our Chicago business, commercial, class-action, and consumer litigation lawyers represent individuals, family businesses and enterprises of all sizes in a variety of legal disputes, including disputes among partners and shareholders as well as lawsuits between businesses and consumer rights, auto fraud, and wage claim individual and class action cases. In every case, our goal is to resolve disputes as quickly and successfully as possible, helping business clients protect their investments and get back to business as usual. We serve clients throughout Illinois and the Chicagoland area. You can contact us online here or call us on our locally at 630-333-0333.