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Man Left Paralyzed After Hospital Denies Care And Calls Police: Lawsuit

Accused of faking his symptoms, Joshua Lee Smith was dragged from his hospital bed, called a “junkie,” and thrown in jail, his lawsuit says. Then, he woke up paralyzed.

Joshua Lee Smith with his fiancée and two daughters.
A photo of Joshua Lee Smith with his fiancée and two daughters, provided to The Appeal by Mr. Smith’s legal team.

On the evening of May 3, 2020, Joshua Lee Smith was visiting his children when his legs began to feel numb, according to a lawsuit filed earlier this month.

His family called 911, and an ambulance came to take Smith to Twin County Regional Healthcare in Galax, Virginia.

But at the hospital, the doctor and nurses accused Smith of faking his symptoms in an attempt to get pain medication, according to the lawsuit, filed on Smith’s behalf by the Georgetown University Law Center’s Civil Rights Clinic. Although Smith has struggled with substance use disorder since being prescribed opioids following back surgery in 2004, he insisted he wasn’t looking for pain medication.

“I was just scared to death because I didn’t know why my legs were starting to go numb,” Smith, now 42, told The Appeal. “I just wanted them to get to the bottom of the problem.”

But Smith said hospital staff maintained that he was seeking drugs. They told him he was being discharged and called the Carroll County sheriff’s office.

A deputy arrived and, with the help of three nurses, dragged Smith out of bed and put him in a wheelchair, according to the complaint. The next morning, he awoke on the floor of a cell at the New River Valley Regional Jail, unable to move and barely able to speak. He was rushed to a different hospital, where he received emergency surgery to repair what doctors discovered was a ruptured abscess on his spine. But the complaint alleges that medical care came too late. Smith says he is now paralyzed from the waist down and has limited use of his arms and hands.

“I basically require 24-hour care,” Smith said in a phone call from a hospital in North Carolina. “I can’t do anything for myself.”

Smith’s legal team alleges that excessive force by Carroll County sheriff’s deputies and medical malpractice by hospital staff at Twin County Regional Healthcare contributed to Smith’s paralysis. ​​Their suit accuses the defendants, including the executive secretary of the Virginia Supreme Court, of discriminating against Smith in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“What we’re looking to do is to hold accountable these actors who were dangerous to Mr. Smith and might be dangerous to others,” said Alexis Grady, one of the student attorneys for Smith.

In a statement emailed to The Appeal, a representative for Twin County Regional Healthcare said that while federal law prohibited them from discussing details of Smith’s case, they had “no reason to believe” staff had not followed proper protocol in assessing Smith’s condition on the night of May 3.

The sheriff’s office, court, and jail did not respond to requests for comment. The Appeal has filed public records requests for law enforcement reports and surveillance video related to Smith’s arrest and incarceration. At the time of publication, The Appeal had not received a response.

The deputy who responded to the hospital on the night of May 3 found that Smith had an outstanding probation violation from 2015 stemming from a “failure to appear” for a conviction for possession of a controlled substance.

“When I left the hospital and I told the officer I need medical attention, I expected him to do his duty and take me to another hospital,” said Smith. “They’re not supposed to deny you medical treatment.”

But instead, Smith said, the deputy drove to the courthouse for a bond hearing.

At the courthouse, the deputy, along with three other officers, pulled Smith out of the car and tried to stand him up, the suit alleges. When he couldn’t walk or stand, they put him on a rubber welcome mat and dragged him through the building to the magistrate. The officers called Smith a “piece of shit junkie,” according to the complaint.

Smith said he appeared before the magistrate on the ground, unable to stand. The magistrate ordered Smith to “stand up and talk to him like a man,” and told him that his bond decision would depend on it, Smith recalled. When he couldn’t stand up, the magistrate remanded him with no bond, according to Smith. (Smith is suing the magistrate, sheriff’s deputies, and jail officers, along with the hospital staff, but they are not named in the complaint because Smith’s legal team has yet to confirm their identity.)

Deputies cuffed Smith’s hands to his waist, shackled his feet together and tossed him in a van “like a sack of potatoes,” said Smith. They drove for about 40 minutes with Smith unsecured in the back, “hitting all kinds of bumps in the road.” Smith said that when he screamed out in pain, the deputy would tell him to shut up or turn the music up.

“I remember at one point when he hit that last bump, that’s when my legs, that’s when I felt nothing,” he said.

The next morning, Smith said he woke up alone on the floor of a jail cell, unable to speak. An officer dropped off breakfast.

“I couldn’t get enough wind to yell out for help,” Smith said.

Hours later, a nurse found Smith lying on the ground while doing her rounds, according to the complaint. Smith told her he was paralyzed. She poked his legs and checked his vitals.

“She advised them they needed to rush me to the hospital,” Smith said. “She probably saved my life, honestly.”

Smith was taken to the hospital for emergency surgery. Doctors found an abscess on his spine, which his legal team says had ruptured while he was detained.

“The next thing I know I woke up in Roanoke and I have a breathing tube down my throat,” Smith said. “I’m completely paralyzed and shackled to a bed.”

Mr. Smith's tattoo art
Smith had worked as a tattoo artist before his trip to the hospital in 2020. He now only has partial use of his hands. Joshua Lee Smith’s legal team

Days after his surgery, Smith was still intubated when an officer held an iPad up to his face for a bond hearing, according to the complaint. The magistrate told Smith to schedule another hearing when he was physically able to. That hearing has still not been set.

For the last two years, Smith has been living in and out of hospitals. At the time of his arrest, he was working as a tattoo artist. Now he can’t even sign his name, he said.

“I used to draw my fiancée pictures and write her little notes all the time, and do the same with my kids,” Smith said. “I can’t do that anymore.”

Smith told The Appeal he hopes his lawsuit will hold the hospital staff, deputies, and magistrate accountable.

“I’d just hate for this to happen to anybody else,” he said. “It’s like my life ended on that day.”