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A veteran died after being restrained by SC VA hospital staff. Now his family is suing.

Surveillance video still

Surveillance video shows staff restraining Luke Smyth, a 37-year-old Navy veteran placed in care at the Dorn V.A. Hospital in Columbia. Provided

Luke Smyth was supposed to be isolated from others, and a lawsuit implies he would still be alive today if he had been. 

As soon as the 37-year-old Navy veteran entered a waiting room at the VA hospital in Columbia, chaos erupted. Smyth had been diagnosed with a personality disorder, it was recommended he not interact with others. But within seconds, the veteran charged for another patient.
Smyth took a swipe at the man sitting in a nearby chair at the William Jennings Bryan Dorn Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center and knocked a Styrofoam cup out of the man's hand, spilling water all over the floor. 

Within moments, two large VA hospital members tackled Smyth, wrestled him to the deck and held him down. One employee put his arm around his neck while throwing him to the ground and another large man sat on the veteran's back, a video of the incident obtained by The Post and Courier shows.

Smyth thrashed around and defecated himself. Within 10 minutes of being taken to the ground and held down, Smyth was lifeless. Nearly a dozen staff members rushed in to try to revive him with CPR, but it was too late.

A lawsuit filed in July by Smyth's parents in U.S. District Court in Columbia alleges that staff at Dorn "continually applied pressure to his neck" during the September 2017 incident, which caused their son to be slowly asphyxiated.

Smyth was a "high risk for verbal and physical aggression" and had been previously isolated from others during trips to other hospitals, the suit states. The civil suit aimed at the United States claims the hospital is responsible for the wrongful death and general negligence of their son.

The suit comes at a time of high scrutiny at Veterans Affairs hospitals across the nation, such as the recent federal probe into about a dozen suspicious deaths at a VA hospital in West Virginia. 

The Navy veteran's father, Pastor Dan Smyth of Greenwood, referred all comment to his attorney, Randy Hood. The Rock Hill injury lawyer said the federal government has not formally responded to the lawsuit.

"They didn’t mean to kill him, they didn’t do it on purpose, but the recklessness of their conduct is overwhelming and it’s apparent," Hood said. "I get so tired of seeing things happen and there is no accountability.”

Smyth was an E-4 in the Navy and served as an air-flight launching captain, trainer, supervisor and airplane mechanic between 1999 and 2004, according to the lawsuit. He was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and was also considered a "bipolar type." 

He was a frequent patient at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Hospital in Charleston, but in early September 2017 he was evacuated to the Columbia facility because of impending Hurricane Irma. Less than 24 hours later, Smyth would be dead on the waiting room floor. 

Candace Hull, the spokeswoman for the Southeastern VA facilities, said the agency typically doesn't comment on pending litigation. She went on to praise the Columbia facility's quality.

"Thousands of South Carolina veterans choose to be treated at the Columbia VA Health Care System," Hull said. "In addition to operating one of the largest and most complex facilities in the nation, the facility maintains combined inpatient and outpatient quality standards that are in the top 15 percent of the nation."

She did not return a question asking about the VA's restraint policies. 

The lawsuit alleges VA staff used the "least restrictive restraint necessary to deescalate the situation" and failed to "assess Luke's condition during the restraint." 

Smyth's manner of death is still labeled a homicide, Richland County Coroner Gary Watts told The Post and Courier. He said the employee's actions directly caused Smyth's death, but no charges have been filed against any staff members.  

Several medical professionals filed exhibits within district court decrying the Dorn staff's methods, including Dr. Alan Morris of Ann Arbor, Mich., and registered nurse Susan Ouellette of Woodstock, Md. 

"It is my opinion, within a reasonable degree of medical certainty that the employees committed negligent, grossly negligent and reckless acts of omissions in their responsibility to the community and more specifically Luke Smyth," Morris' affidavit states. 

Smyth's death comes on the heels of another restraining death in Columbia earlier this year. On Jan. 22, 35-year-old William Avant was a patient at the state Department of Mental Health. Staffers pinned him face down on a Columbia hospital floor and laid on his back for four minutes, preventing his diaphragm from expanding to deliver oxygen to vital organs. Avant's death is also classified a homicide by the Richland coroner's office.

Accusations of fraud, backlog and abuse have been seen at VA centers across the nation in recent years. Inefficiency and malpractice have caught congressional attention, and a notable increase in transparency by the VA. After public attention several years ago was brought to veterans who were ailing in long wait lines, it appeared South Carolina was also caught in the shuffle.

A Post and Courier report from 2015 identified that of the nearly 9,700 medical appointments completed at the Dorn center in Columbia between a six month period that failed to meet the VA’s timeliness standard, about a quarter of those appointments involved a wait of more than 61 days.

This week, new discoveries became public when the VA's Office of Inspector General investigated a series of suspicious deaths at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, W. Va. Nearly a dozen veteran's deaths are being reexamined after officials believed the elderly patients were injected with insulin when it wasn't required. 

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Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5715. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

Thomas Novelly reports on the military community across South Carolina. He also covers growth and development in Berkeley County. Previously, he wrote for the Courier Journal in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a fan of Southern rock, bourbon and horse racing.

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