Black man enslaved by white restaurant owner should be awarded more than $500K, court rules

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Minyvonne Burke
·3 min read
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A Black man with intellectual disabilities should be awarded more than $500,000 after he was enslaved for five years at a South Carolina restaurant, a court ruled.

Bobby Paul Edwards, who is white, pleaded guilty in June 2018 to one count of forced labor for using "violence and other coercive means" to make John Christopher Smith work at his restaurant for more than 100 hours a week without pay, the U.S. Department of Justice previously said in a press release.

As part of his guilty plea, Edwards was sentenced to 10 years in prison and was ordered to pay Smith $272,952.96 in restitution. However, a court ruled last month that the amount should be doubled and Smith should receive more than $545,000.

In the April 21 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit stated that the initial amount decided by the court had "erred in refusing to include liquidated damages in its order of restitution."

Citing the Fair Labor Standards Act, the court said an employer who fails to pay minimum wages and overtime to a worker is "liable for 'liquidated damages'" in an amount equal to that missed compensation.

Image: Bobby Paul Edwards, a South Carolina restaurant manager who has been ordered held without bond on charges of abusing and enslaving an employee with intellectual disabilities. (J. Reuben Long Detention Center / AP)
Image: Bobby Paul Edwards, a South Carolina restaurant manager who has been ordered held without bond on charges of abusing and enslaving an employee with intellectual disabilities. (J. Reuben Long Detention Center / AP)

"When an employer fails to pay those amounts, the employee suffers losses, which includes the loss of the use of that money during the period of delay," the ruling stated.

The abuse began in 2009 when Edwards was the manager of J&J Cafeteria in Conway, about 15 miles northwest of Myrtle Beach.

The U.S. Department of Justice said Edwards subjected Smith to "physical and emotional abuse" whenever Smith did not work fast enough or made a mistake. Authorities said Edwards would punch Smith, beat him with a belt and hit him with pots and pans. On one occasion Edwards dipped metal tongs into hot grease and burned Smith's neck, the Justice Department said.

Edwards also used racial slurs "to belittle and demean him," the agency said.

Smith was removed from the restaurant and put under the care of the state's adult protective services after a concerned resident contacted authorities in 2014.

According to NBC affiliate WMBF in Myrtle Beach, Smith has a condition in which his intellectual ability is significantly below average.

The following year, he sued Edwards, J&J Cafeteria and the restaurant's co-owner for enslavement, false imprisonment and racial and disability discrimination. According to the suit, Edwards owned the restaurant with his brother.

Smith said in the lawsuit that he was forced to work from 6 a.m. until after the restaurant was closed and cleaned. He sometimes would not leave until 1:30 a.m.

There were times Smith was so tired that he "had to be carried home and physically fed drink and food," the lawsuit states. Edwards told Smith that he was putting his compensation into a bank account but it did not exist.

The beatings and physical abuse would take place in a back office or freezer, Smith said in the suit.

He did not report the abuse because he feared for his life. According to the lawsuit, Edwards threatened to stomp on Smith's neck if he went to the police and beat him "until people would not recognize him."

During the years he was enslaved, Smith was forced to live at an apartment that Edwards owned. The suit states the apartment was overrun with cockroaches and the living conditions were "deplorable and harmful to human health."

The lawsuit remains open.