NC jail inmate says headache became brain injury. His lawsuit isn’t the only one

Rowan County inmate David Ryan Wood begged for help.

Medical staff wouldn’t see him, even after a weeklong headache, he wrote in a grievance on Aug. 1, 2021. If a nurse was available 24/7, why hadn’t he seen her?

“Forwarded to nurse,” a staff note said.

For days, he kept asking.

“Duplicate,” a one-word response read.

That was typical, according to a federal lawsuit filed on Wood’s behalf in September.

Wood went to jail for an alleged probation violation. For almost two months, he asked correctional officers and medical staff at the Rowan County jail, about 45 miles from uptown Charlotte, to address extreme headaches and other symptoms, according to the lawsuit. The headaches started after he was assaulted, he said.

The suit claims that they downplayed his condition — giving him Tylenol, putting him on a liquid diet and telling him to rest, for example — even as he showed more signs he’d suffered a brain injury.

The complaint names the county, its sheriff and health care provider Wellpath as defendants. It’s an example of a “disturbingly common issue of substandard medical care in jails,” according to the North Carolina ACLU. Health care providers working in jails too often put profits over health, said NC ACLU Legal Director Kristi Graunke.

David Ryan Wood, 37, will “never be the same” after a health care provider at the Rowan County jail ignored his pleas for help, a lawsuit alleges. Provided
David Ryan Wood, 37, will “never be the same” after a health care provider at the Rowan County jail ignored his pleas for help, a lawsuit alleges. Provided

The poor medical care “is exacerbated when for-profit entities like Wellpath are involved, and when proper oversight by public officials is lacking,” she said.

Wellpath and its lawyers did not respond to interview requests. The Rowan County Sheriff’s Office and the county’s attorney both declined to comment.

In a motion to dismiss, Wellpath said that much of Wood’s complaint was “hearsay” built off of news articles.

The suit is still in its early stages.

Lawsuits filed against Wellpath

More than 1,000 lawsuits have been filed against Wellpath in federal courts. As the company and its past iterations worked in North Carolina jails, some notable accusations followed it:

In 2014: Jennifer Schuler, a pregnant inmate at the Forsyth County jail, died after a severe cardiac event and a lack of oxygen to her brain, according to a lawsuit filed there.

“After persisting in a vegetative state for five days, Decedent’s parents had no option other than to take her off life support,” the complaint from Schuler’s estate said.

Correct Care Solutions — which would merge to become Wellpath — failed to ensure that she got medications she needed, to see the significance in her symptoms and to “report adverse changes in her physical condition to physician staff” so she could get better care or be transferred somewhere, it alleged.

Correct Care fought the suit for more than a year before Schuler’s estate dismissed all the claims in 2017 and 2018.

They settled, the Winston-Salem Journal reported.

There is no record for the settlement’s terms in the case file, but one notes that both parties reached agreement “on all issues.”

In 2017: Michele Smiley died at Buncombe County’s jail after she swallowed methamphetamine in an effort to avoid prosecution, the Asheville Citizen Times reported. But she later told on herself.

She would just get “really high,” jail personnel assured her, according to the newspaper.

An autopsy found she died from methamphetamine toxicity.

Correctional Medical Group, another company that would merge to become Wellpath, reached a confidential settlement, the Citizen Times reported.

In 2019: Yet another Forsyth inmate, John Neville, had asthma and needed an inhaler, according to a federal lawsuit filed by his estate.

He missed at least two doses, fell in his cell and “exhibited seizure-like symptoms” on his first night in custody, the suit says.

Deputies also drew attention in Neville’s case when body camera footage revealed that they put him in a prone position even as he went through the health episode. He died at a hospital days later.

An autopsy report listed his cause of death as a lack of oxygen that led to a heart attack and brain injury from being held in prone restraint.

While admitting no fault, the county settled with Neville’s estate for $3 million.

The claims against Wellpath were dismissed. Neville’s family’s attorney, Whitney Pakalka, did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2021: Devin Haley committed suicide while in the Mecklenburg County jail.

Despite Wellpath knowing his history of poor mental health, he did not get the medication he asked for, a lawsuit filed by his family claims.

“Not only did the Detention Defendants and the Wellpath Defendants not secure reasonable medical treatment for Devin but they placed Devin in a single person cell where he was unsupervised and effectively unmonitored at a time when he required urgent medical attention, and where he ultimately died,” one filing says.

The case is pending, the family’s attorney, Amanda Mingo, confirmed.

There have been others still. Inmates, without the help of lawyers, have been asking the courts to do something about Wellpath for years, federal court records show. As is typical for pro se lawsuits, most have been dismissed quickly.

What are NC jails’ responsibilities?

Rowan County Detention Administrator Gregory Hannold knew about complaints against Wellpath when the county signed a deal in 2021.

“They do have a few lawsuits, but it’s a company of 30,000 employees. Lawsuits are kind of common in this business,” Hannold told the Salisbury Post. “I have known their representative since I took over the jail and I’ve discussed those lawsuits with her and some of her bosses before. I don’t have any reservations about their ability to protect our county against lawsuits.”

State law requires sheriffs provide some base level of care to inmates, and jails sometimes use private companies to meet those requirements, UNC Professor of Public Law and Government James Markham said.

“Each unit that operates a local confinement facility shall develop a plan for providing medical care for prisoners in the facility,” state statutes say. That plan has to protect inmates’ health and welfare, among other things.

Sheriffs have their reasons when hiring companies like Wellpath: expertise, familiarity with regulations and a skill set that might be more tailored for working in a jail, Markham said. But there’s a balancing act.

“They’re going to certainly try to be responsible with taxpayer money, but they have to make sure that the bidders can deliver on the services that they need,” he said, not speaking to Wellpath or Rowan County specifically.

One challenge for Wood’s lawyers will be to prove that Wellpath was more than just negligent, Markham said. That way it’s a question of his constitutional rights, and not just alleged medical malpractice.

Along with state law, federal law has long said ignoring the needs of someone incarcerated amounts to a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

“You have to not merely be negligent, but rather indifferent to it, to raise a constitutional issue,” Markham said.

It all depends on the specifics of the case, he added.

‘Accountability and Justice for Ryan’

Wood’s physical condition worsened dramatically as he was ignored, his lawsuit alleges.

He reported losing his vision and hearing. He lost 30 pounds, vomited frequently and said he could not breathe. His blood pressure rose. He became “hyperactive and emotionally unstable,” started speaking loudly and at times sounded like he was “whimpering,” according to the lawsuit.

“Mr. Wood continued to physically deteriorate and beg for medical treatment,” it alleges. “And Defendants continued to ignore him.”

Rather than give him the care he needed, they placed him on suicide watch and accused him of making false reports, it says.

When he finally became so ill that an ambulance had to take him to the emergency room, brain imaging showed that his had swelled. Fluid filled his head.

David Ryan Wood before his health issues. Provided
David Ryan Wood before his health issues. Provided

Over multiple procedures, doctors drained the fluid. But he’ll never be the same, the lawsuit says.

He needs “aggressive physical therapy” to learn how to walk again, it claims. And his cognitive function, memory and hearing were all “permanently and severely damaged.”

One hope, one of Wood’s attorneys said, is that it might save others from suffering.

“We look forward to an opportunity to seek accountability and justice for Ryan, and we also hope that his prosecution of this case will protect others from suffering a similar tragic fate,” attorney Elliot Abrams said in a statement to The Observer.