Oberlin College sues its insurers for refusing to reimburse it for the damages levied in the Gibson’s Bakery case

August 8, 2023 • 11:00 am

Remember the fight between Gibson’s Bakery and Oberlin College in 2016? It seems so long ago, but it isn’t over yet.  You can read about it on the relevant Wikipedia page, or on the many posts I wrote about it at the time.  If you forget, here’s the summary from Wikipedia:

The case began in 2016 with an incident of shoplifting by a Black Oberlin College student at Gibson’s Bakery, and subsequent arrest of three Black students for assaulting a staff member. Students, faculty members and employees of Oberlin College protested against the bakery, alleging racism. Meredith Raimondo, the dean of students and vice-president at Oberlin College, took part in the protest, distributing a pamphlet falsely alleging racism on the part of the bakery. Oberlin initiated financial sanctions against the bakery and lent material support to protestors. The owners of the bakery sued Oberlin College and Raimondo for damages.

A jury found that the college had defamed the owner of Gibson’s Bakery and his family and awarded them $44 million in compensatory and punitive damages in 2019. The trial judge reduced the total award to $25 million due to Ohio state law capping punitive damages. The trial court also awarded the bakery $6 million for legal fees. The college appealed the decision. In 2022, the Ninth Ohio District Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the 2019 jury verdict which found that the college defamed, inflicted distress and illegally interfered with Gibson’s Bakery; the court also upheld the damages award. Oberlin College then sought review by the Supreme Court of Ohio, but that effort failed when the court declined to accept jurisdiction on August 30, 2022.

Oberlin behaved badly, defaming, lying about, and trying to damage Gibson’s Bakery, and the jury got angry, levying a huge fine.  With interest, the amount that Oberlin had to pay Gibson’s was precisely $36,590,572.48. That’s a big hit for a small school like Oberlin, and a windfall for Gibson’s (alas, two of the owners involved in the fight died during the legal proceedings).

But Oberlin had insurance through four companies:  Lexington Insurance Company of New York; United Educators Insurance of Bethesda, Maryland; Mount Hawley Insurance Company of Peoria, Illinois; and StarStone Specialty Insurance Company of Cincinnati. The College assumed that they could recoup that huge pile of damages from these insurance companies.

But not so fast: the companies are refusing to pay Oberlin, and so the College have had to take them to court. This case will go on forever! Click the screenshot below to read the National Review article about this suit, or  see a more complex post at Legal Insurrection. 

Why are the insurers refusing to pay? Because, they claim, Oberlin violated the conditions of the insurance policy. Not only are the companies balking at paying, but United Educators is refusing to renew its $25 million coverage of Oberlin, coverage that had lasted 34 years.

Here’s the basis of the lawsuit: the insurance companies claimed that Oberlin’s actions rendered reimbursement null and void. I’ve put the meat of the companies’ claims in bold:

William A. Jacobson previously noted at Legal Insurrection that a Motion to Intervene filed by Lexington in 2019 offered evidence that the company was likely planned to refuse to cover the judgement.

The company wrote in the filing that the policy at hand “potentially provides coverage in relation to ‘personal and advertising injury,’ defined to include defamation and/or disparagement in certain circumstances” but that it “excludes any such coverage if ‘personal and advertising injury’ is caused ‘with the knowledge that the act would violate the rights of another … ,’ or if the insured published material it knew to be false. Further, the Lexington policy provides coverage for punitive damages insurable by law, but only where the corresponding award of compensatory damages is also covered by the Lexington policy.”

The filing went on to note that the plaintiffs in the Oberlin case [JAC: Gibson’s Bakery] “allege that defendants Oberlin and Ms. Raimondo published material that falsely characterized the bakery owned by plaintiffs (“Gibson’s”) as being a racist establishment.”

“While such allegations potentially implicate ‘personal and advertising injury,’ plaintiffs also alleged that the statements were published with malice, were intended to injure plaintiffs’ business reputation, and were part of a purported campaign to harm plaintiffs,” the filing read. “If it is established that the defendants knew the alleged statements were false, or if the defendants knew their alleged acts would violate plaintiffs’ rights, the Lexington policy would exclude coverage for any resultant damage. Thus, Lexington seeks to intervene in order to submit jury interrogatories to determine the extent of the defendants’ knowledge in relation to the alleged publications.”

In other words, the College’s actions constituted “personal and advertising injury” that violated the rights of Gibson’s Bakery, and, in its pamphlets and handouts, published information that Oberlin knew to be false. That’s defamation that injured the bakery and was intended to do so.

Of course insurance companies don’t want to hand out such a large reimbursement, so I’m not sure if they’ll prevail in this case. But given Oberlin’s arrogant behavior and invidious actions against Gibson’s Bakery, which the jury saw as unforgivable, I can’t help but be glad that Oberlin hasn’t yet been able to recover the damages. And, in trying to do so, they’re going to have to pay even more money to lawyers.

Note too that Oberlin never issued an apology for defaming the bakery, calling it a racist establishment (not at all true), and trying to hurt Gibson’s business.

From The Oberlin Review. Photo: Talia Rose. 

h/t: DrBrydon, Michael

21 thoughts on “Oberlin College sues its insurers for refusing to reimburse it for the damages levied in the Gibson’s Bakery case

    1. The College certainly has redeeming features. It is known as a place that has tried, since it was a stop on the Underground Railway, to address racism. It has a history of admitting black students, since the time of slavery. In a case I know of, they took a chance on a student (who happens to be white) with a really bad high school education, much worse than their general run of students, and enabled him to succeed academically in a demanding field.

  1. When I saw last year that Oberlin College had paid Gibson’s, I had assumed the payment came from the insurance companies. But now I guess the college paid directly?

    It’s appalling that the college had $36 million just lying around for that purpose. If they really think racism is terrible and something should be done about it, they could have used all that money to do something about it. Instead they threw it away on lawyers and gave it to the Gibson family who god knows have earned every penny.

    1. The college probably doesn’t have $36 million lying around. It was probably earmarked for students and staff and teaching. Now all of those will suffer. They could perhaps recoup a fraction of the cost by firing all those involved in taking the disastrous course of action.

  2. Let’s also not forget that Oberlin first tried to negotiate with Gibson’s before it started its defamatory campaign against them, telling Gibson’s that it would back off if the bakery agreed not to pursue charges or talk about what happened and not prosecute Oberlin students in the future! What Oberlin did was clearly a retaliatory attack.

    Insurance is not meant to cover intentionally breaking the law. You can’t buy insurance for that. You can buy insurance in case one of your employees breaks the law, but this took place at an institutional level, as the jury agreed.

  3. As a free speech absolutist, I’m against defamation laws, but if anyone deserves to be sued for libel, it’s those kooks at Oberlin.

  4. To me, the weak point in the insurer’s case is their reliance on the claim that Oberlin College (that is, administrators representing Oberlin College) knew that Gibson’s Bakery was not racist. Apparently the jury drew this conclusion and that may officially be the end of it, but given how Critical Race Theory is often interpreted or promoted, I think it would be hard for anyone who enthusiastically embraced it to recognize that a business owned by white people isn’t racist. Of course it’s racist: racism is built into the system. Even were the owners black, if the shoplifters were also black — racism. Capitalism is racist.

    Being a liar and being so thoroughly deluded that you see only what you expect to see aren’t really the same thing. The College behaved in such a foolhardy and reckless fashion every step of the way that seems to me there’s more than a hint of True Believer in it.

    1. The post at Legal Insurrection tries to explain this but it’s complicated and I’m not sure I understand. I think part of the insurers’ defence in this new lawsuit is that the insurers’ lawyers tried to query the jury in the original Gibson’s trial about the jury members’ views of whether the Oberlin College administrators knew that the Gibsons were not racists. But the college’s lawyers prevented the insurers’ lawyers from making those queries. So the insurers now can say that they tried to find out whether the claims are supportable, and Oberlin actively prevented them from finding out, therefore claims denied.

  5. That Oberlin is now suing its insurers about the $36 million-shaped hole almost makes one suspect there is a God after all—One with a wicked sense of humor. Incidentally, I wonder how all these legal proceedings affect Oberlin’s former dean and wizard of DEI,
    Meredith Raimondo, who was named as a defendant in the Gibsons’ suit. When last heard of, she had accepted a wizard position at Oglethorpe U. in Georgia.

    1. A student writes Oglethorpe University is uncomfortable for Jewish students.


      Dr. Meredith Raimondo contacted me soon after she was hired after I publicly voiced concern (along with other Jewish students) about a pro-Lenin group on campus named “The Radical Petrels,” who encouraged their followers to listen to a podcast that contained highly anti-semitic content. Dr. Raimondo is not in charge of the “DEI.” Dr. Laura Chandler holds this position yet never once directly answered my emails regarding antisemitic concerns on campus.

      Why would a brand-new administration member, inexperienced with our campus climate and not directly affiliated with the “DEI,” be so keen to handle my issue? This was a mystery to me, but not for long.

      I was shocked to learn that students, alumni, professors, and staff had voiced concerns at Oberlin College, where Raimondo “handled” issues involving Jewish students. When Raimondo served as Oberlin’s Special Assistant to the President for Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity from 2014 to 2021, Oberlin College became a hotbed of antisemitism.

      1. How sad and how often that focus on black supremacy and anti-semitism go together (thinking of Farrakhan and also of the father of Hakeem Jeffries, who took over from Pelosi as leader of the House Dems.)

        There is also that “lean-toward” islamism that goes w/the NOI crowd and the anti-Asian tint that accompanies it, almost as if battle lines are drawn up (and we know on which side Whites are put, — as if they have no choice — )

        (Although Whites who are far-left like to think of themselves as on the “oppressed” side — which they believe is the Farrakhan side, but which more and more these days of course, is not.)

  6. That is a huge amount of money for that type of college. I am a bit astonished that the college (or the administration officials) didn’t run their plans past a lawyer first.

  7. What would make me terribly sad is if this train wreck of bad decisions results in lay-offs or even bankruptcy of the college. One could serve some dishes of just desserts to a few, but the majority working there had nothing to do with it. The working staff at a college are really just plain folks from the community, for one thing.

    1. Mark, excellent observation. The students and administrators who caused this problem can fly off to other jobs and lives while the majority of college and town employees are left to clean up the mess and live with its aftermath. I have to hope that the students who participated in the boycotts grow into compassionate adults who think for themselves. They’ve had a sharp lesson in why that’s the best path to follow.

    2. A good point well made. Yes, like the Gibsons the local employees and businesses reliant on Oberlin don’t deserve to suffer from the institution’s stupidity and pigheadedness.

  8. Oberlin gets no sympathy from me. Either they go bankrupt because they don’t get the insurance money or they go bankrupt trying to fight the insurance companies. What they did was unconscionable and unforgivable. Monetary and reputational loss are the only currencies that can put a stop to this. Sadly, as Mark says, many innocents at Oberlin and in the surrounding community will be badly harmed as well due to the hubris of the few in charge.

  9. Looks like Oberlin and Meredith Raimondo will have to face up to the cost of their egregious actions. My heart bleeds…

  10. 40 million dollars not spent on education, lives disproportionally interupted by a failure to see reason, Raimondo waltzes off to reap further havoc? the baker has a pay day but is it really compensation? A life of building a business and the relationships that come with it.
    The whole shameful episode is an execise in human inability to further better human behaviour. To show the young how to navigate obstacles, what reason actually looks like on the ground.
    I hope Gibsons make some effort with the money to show it was always beyond the appalling behaviour show by Oberline.

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