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Appeals court upholds $25M judgment against Oberlin College

FILE-This March 5, 2013 file photo shows a student riding a bicycle on the campus of Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. The 9th District Court of Appeals upheld a $31 million judgment on Thursday, March 31, 2022 against Oberlin College that had been awarded to Gibson's Bakery and Food Mart that successfully claimed it was libeled by the school after a shoplifting incident in November of 2016. The court rejected all of the college's appeal arguments. Oberlin students and staff staged protests outside the market after the shoplifting incident . A jury in June 2019 awarded story owners $44 million in compensatory and punitive damages and $6 million in attorney fees. The Gibsons' award was later reduced by a judge to $25 million. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)

CLEVELAND (AP) — An Ohio appeals court has upheld a $25 million judgment for a business that successfully claimed it was libeled by Oberlin College in the aftermath of a shoplifting incident that roiled the historic liberal arts school and music conservatory’s campus outside Cleveland.

The 9th District Court of Appeals in Akron on Thursday rejected all of Oberlin College’s claims and upheld a judge’s ruling that attorneys for the owners of Gibson’s Bakery and Food Mart should receive $6.3 million in legal fees from the school.

The three judge panel also agreed with Lorain County Judge John Miraldi’s decision rejecting Oberlin College’s motion for a new trial and denied the store owners’ claim that the damage awards did not sufficiently punish the school.

In a statement, Oberlin College officials said they were disappointed by the ruling. They said they were reviewing the court’s 50-page opinion “carefully as we evaluate our options and determine next steps.” Officials acknowledged that issues raised by the case have been challenging “not only for the parties involved in the lawsuit, but for the entire Oberlin community.”

Store owners Allyn Gibson and his son, David Gibson, sued Oberlin College in November 2017 claiming they had been libeled by the school and their business had been harmed. The lawsuit was filed a year after David Gibson’s son, also named Allyn, chased and tackled a Black male student he suspected of having stolen a bottle of wine. Two Black female students who were with the male student tried to intervene. All three were arrested and later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges.

The arrests triggered protests outside Gibson’s Bakery where flyers were handed out, some by an Oberlin College vice president and dean of students, accusing the Gibsons of being racist. A Student Senate resolution condemning the Gibsons was emailed to all students and was posted in a display case at school’s student center, where it remained for a year. Oberlin College officials ordered its campus food provider to stop buying bakery items from Gibson’s.

A Lorain County jury awarded the Gibsons $44 million in compensatory and punitive damages in June 2019 after a five week trial. Miraldi, the Lorain County judge, later reduced the jury award to $25 million.

David Gibson died in November 2019 at age 65. Allyn Gibson died in February. He was 93.