Update on Friday, Aug. 23: The lawsuit Meng v. University of Oregon was moved to Lane County Circuit Court Aug. 16, after a prolonged battle over which venue should host the case, court documents show.
No further court date has been set.
The Emerald will continue to report on this story as it develops.
A negligence lawsuit over mold in University of Oregon graduate student housing has stalled as the parties argue over which county should hold the trial. The suit, which was filed by the family of a UO graduate student, alleged that the university failed to manage mold growing in their east campus housing and caused severe health issues for their two children.
The lawsuit filed by the Meng family led the Emerald to report on widespread mold growth in East Campus Housing last January.
Mold in East Campus Housing
Indoor mold exposure can cause a stuffy nose, wheezing and red or itchy eyes for those who are sensitive to mold, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and people who are more sensitive or have compromised immune systems may have more severe symptoms. According to the CDC, mold exposure can also cause upper respiratory problems like coughing and wheezing in otherwise healthy people.
In January, the Emerald found 40 East Campus Housing units with visible mold out of 70 inspected units. But the university maintained that the homes, which are primarily occupied by graduate students and often by students with families, are safe.
There is still visible mold in 38 east campus housing units, according to new records from inspections done by UO between February and April 2019 — more than half of the 58 inspected homes.
Eight months after the Emerald published its story, UO has not changed its position on the safety of the housing units. “The UO considers all of its housing units to be safe, and does not believe illness has been caused by any UO maintenance activities,” UO spokesperson Kelly McIver wrote in a statement to the Emerald.
“In most cases, total mold growth observed was a few square inches to a few square feet,” McIver said about the results of the recent inspection records. “When mold growth observed within a residence is slight and is the result of typical occupation of the dwelling, then removing and cleaning it is considered to be part of the tenant’s normal housekeeping to keep the unit in good condition, as required by the rental agreement.”
McIver said tenants are told when properties have mold, and tenants are also expected to report mold when they find it. Some mold is common in western Oregon, he said, and is not a cause for concern.
Lawsuit stalled over proper venue
Emily Meng and her family lived in university housing while her husband completed his graduate degree, she said. But she, her husband and their two children developed symptoms like headaches, sinus infections and fatigue, which they allege in their complaint are consistent with mold exposure.
They eventually moved to a different university-owned housing unit, but Meng said her family has ongoing issues from the mold that grew in their home. “They’re never going to go away,” she said.
More than a year after the Meng family sued UO, the university has not filed an answer to the complaint. The Mengs have since moved to Hawaii for work, and it will cost them significantly more to travel for the eventual trial, their lawyer Kelly Vance said.
“We’ve got a couple of sick kids,” Meng said on what she hopes will come from the lawsuit. “We would like to take care of them.”
The case, which was filed in July 2018, has been held up since November by questions of where the case should be tried: Lane or Multnomah County.
The Mengs brought suit in Multnomah County because the experts they needed to testify in court would cost the family thousands of dollars more in travel to appear in Lane County, Vance said.
But UO filed a request to switch courts 91 days after the complaint was filed. The university argued in the motion that the case should be heard in Lane County because the alleged problems with the UO-owned property took place in Lane County, and the law that the Mengs used to file their suit against the university in Multnomah County, which allows suits to be filed where companies do business, didn’t apply because the law applies to corporations, not public entities like the university.
UO also wrote that all likely witnesses also reside in Lane County and would otherwise have to travel. “It would be a waste of University resources, which are public resources that consist largely of student tuition dollars, to litigate this matter in Multnomah County,” the university wrote in its original motion.
But the Mengs argued that UO wanted to change the venue because the university would have an unfair advantage in Lane County. Vance wrote in a court filing that Multnomah County was the right place for the trial because the university does business there too — at the university’s Portland Campus.
“The UO wants to change venue to Lane County, not because this case was filed in the wrong venue, or because it cannot get a fair trial in Multnomah County,” Vance wrote in the Mengs’ response to the venue change request. “This motion was brought because the UO believes it has a decided advantage in Lane County. That is not a valid reason to change venue.”
After months of back and forth, Judge Benjamin Souede denied the change of venue request in May. But the University of Oregon filed for an order from the Oregon Supreme Court, called a writ of mandamus, directing Souede to move the trial to Lane County.
Six other public universities in Oregon, including Oregon State and Portland State, filed a joint “friend of the court” brief supporting UO’s motion. In it, they said the universities operate across the state and allowing the suit to proceed in a county other than the one where the incident took place would waste public funds.
“The trial court's decision, which allows suit in any county where a university operates, even if the factual allegations at issue in the suit did not occur in that county, dramatically expands the venues in which the Universities may be sued for any given dispute,” they wrote.
On Aug. 1, the Oregon Supreme Court allowed the university's request, meaning Multnomah County has until Aug. 15 to show why the case should stay in the county or the case will be moved to Lane County.
Vance said he wishes the Oregon Supreme Court would have explained its reasoning for the decision. “I believe the trial court was right and the Supreme Court was wrong,” he said. But he said he doesn’t expect the Multnomah County court will fight to keep the case.
The university filed a for a stay in the case in Multnomah County while it sought the Supreme Court’s help. The Mengs eventually withdrew their opposition because they didn’t want to pay for travel for depositions if the stay was denied, Vance said. But the Oregon Supreme Court granted the venue change before the hearing on the stay, and it was cancelled.
Both Vance and McIver said they are always open to settlements, but that there are no talks of a settlement in this case. “The parties have not engaged in settlement discussions and at this point there are no plans to do so,” McIver wrote in an emailed statement.