Multnomah County sues oil companies over 2021 Heat Dome disaster

June 22, 2023

“The heat dome was a direct and foreseeable consequence of the Defendants’ decision to sell as many fossil fuel products over the last six decades as they could and to lie to the County, the public, and the scientific community about the catastrophic harm.”

Multnomah County, Ore. (June 22, 2023) — Today Multnomah County filed suit against several of the largest fossil fuel and coal-producing corporations, seeking to hold them accountable for the damages arising from the 2021 Pacific Northwest Heat Dome, one of the most deadly and destructive human-made weather disasters in American history. 

The County alleges that the combined historical carbon pollution from the use of Defendants’ fossil fuel products was a substantial factor in causing and exacerbating the heat dome, which smothered the County’s residents for several days.

The suit, filed in Oregon Circuit Court in Multnomah County, names Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, Motiva, Occidental Petroleum, Anadarko Petroleum, Space Age Fuel, Valero Energy, Total Specialties USA, Marathon Petroleum, Peabody Energy, Koch Industries, American Petroleum Institute, Western States Petroleum Association, and McKinsey & Company.

In this effort to hold these fossil fuel companies and their misinformation agents accountable, the County is represented by three law firms as their outside counsel: Worthington & Caron, PC, Simon Greenstone Panatier, PC, and Thomas, Coon, Newton & Frost. Each firm specializes in large-scale catastrophic harm litigation. 

"This lawsuit is about accountability and fairness, and I believe the people of Multnomah County deserve both. These businesses knew their products were unsafe and harmful, and they lied about it," said Chair Jessica Vega Pederson. "They have profited massively from their lies and left the rest of us to suffer the consequences and pay for the damages. We say enough is enough."

Beginning on June 25, 2021, the Plaintiff, Multnomah County, was scorched by the most extreme heat event in its history. Over the course of three consecutive days, County temperatures reached highs of 108°, 112° and 116° Fahrenheit. All three of these high temperatures, up to 40 degrees above the daily average for the region, exceed those of any other day in the County’s recorded history. The extreme heat caused the deaths of 69 people, property damage, and the significant expenditure of taxpayer monies and County resources.

In the aftermath of the superheating event, several of the world’s most experienced and respected climate scientists conducted research to determine the heat dome’s causes. They published their findings in studies that were unanimous in their conclusion: This deadly event was caused by fossil fuel emissions, which polluted the atmosphere. Further, that pollution caused dramatic rises in global temperature, drought and the drying of regional soil. When those pollution-caused conditions combined with a dense high-pressure system that hovered over the Pacific Northwest, they converted the region’s typically mild climate into functionally that of a convection oven. 

The lawsuit asserts, “The heat dome that cost so much life and loss was not a natural weather event. It did not just happen because life can be cruel, nor can it be rationalized as simply a mystery of God’s will. Rather, the heat dome was a direct and foreseeable consequence of the Defendants’ decision to sell as many fossil fuel products over the last six decades as they could and to lie to the County, the public, and the scientific community about the catastrophic harm that pollution from those products into the Earth’s and the County’s atmosphere would cause.”

The lawsuit alleges that the Defendants committed negligence and fraud, and created a public nuisance, all of which are well-established causes of action under Oregon state tort law. As attorney Jeffrey Simon, a partner at Simon Greenstone Panatier, PC, and a law professor of mass tort litigation observed, “There are no new laws or novel theories being asserted here. We contend that the Defendants broke long-standing ones, and we will prove it to a jury.” 

“What is new about this case,” said attorney Roger Worthington, a partner at Worthington & Caron, PC, “is how the leadership of Multnomah County is utilizing irrefutable climate science to hold corporate polluters accountable for their role in causing a discreet and disastrous event, as well as recent wildfires.

“We will show that fossil fuel-induced global warming is already costing Oregonians lives and treasure. We will show that the normal use of fossil fuel products over time has imposed massive external, unpriced and untraded social, economic and environmental costs on the County. We will show that they were aware of this price, and instead of fully informing the public, they deceived us. And we will ask a jury to decide if it is fair to hold the polluters accountable for these avoidable and rising costs.

“We are confident that, once we show what the fossil fuel companies knew about global warming and when, and what they did to deny, delay and deceive the public, the jury will not let the fossil fuel companies get away with their reckless misconduct.”

The County’s lawsuit seeks $50 million in actual damages and $1.5 billion in future damages.

In addition, the County seeks an abatement fund, estimated at $50 billion, to study, plan, and upgrade the public health care services and infrastructure that will be reasonably necessary to “weatherproof” the County from future extreme heat events and to safeguard the public health. 

What the Board is saying

The Board of County Commissioners declared climate change a public nuisance and authorized the litigation at their regular weekly meeting.

District 2 Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said, “There was nothing “natural” about the heat dome, or about the wildfires. There was also nothing inevitable about them. They were caused by climate change, and they were preventable. The loss of life was preventable, the loss of homes was preventable. The County and its taxpayers are footing the bill for a crisis that the fossil fuel industry has known was coming, and not only has done nothing to stop, but has made worse. All in the name of profit. They need to be held accountable."

District 4 Commissioner Lori Stegmann said “This catastrophic event poses the greatest risk to our vulnerable communities, and places an immense financial burden on our local governments and taxpayers. It is time for climate impact accountability. We cannot afford to wait any longer to ensure the safety and well-being of our residents, The time is long overdue. We continue to experience an increasing number of weather related crises and it is critical that we hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the severe social, environmental and economic losses to our county.”

District 4 Commissioner Dr. Sharon Meieran, who had a planned absence but remarked earlier on the impacts to the community, said, “Severe heat is dangerous for everyone. When heat goes too high, our bodies need to get rid of the excess heat and try to cool down. If we can’t maintain that, we can get heat exhaustion, get dehydrated and suffer from heat stroke. People can have mental status changes that makes them not realize they need to get out of the heat, or makes them unable to take action. Anyone whose ability to cool down is hampered in any way is even more vulnerable to injury. This includes elders, people with chronic medical conditions. And all of this is way worse if someone is living outside. 

“We need more options for cooling, and for serving people living outside. Especially during the extreme weather.”

During the meeting, District 3 Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards said, "The county has a responsibility to protect public health.I'm thinking about the many local youth I've worked with on climate issues. Over the last several years their expectations and demands and insistence that community leaders take bold action - this is a bold action the youth expect of us."