Liv Vasquez, like many people, was quarantined in her home in Southeast Portland’s Buckman neighborhood last summer. It was the same summer Portland was gaining international attention for social justice marches and riots throughout the city.
Tear gas was regularly used as crowd control by Portland police as protestors marched through the streets. Vasquez says protestors would commonly gather near her home before starting their marches which led to tear gas being used in her neighborhood.
Vasquez didn’t know at the time that more than a year later she would be filing a lawsuit against the city of Portland, for pain and suffering caused by side effects of that tear gas.
“I was in a lot of pain”
“I would get not even half a block from my house and start having cramps so bad, I had to go home,” Vasquez said. " So something was wrong because I’d never really had that issue before.”
Even inside her home, Vasquez was getting irritated eyes, and a runny nose. Nothing had changed in Vasquez’s diet, or routine. In fact, she was rarely leaving her home.
“Literally the only thing that was different was taking a walk in a place that was filled with tear gas,” Vasquez said.
Cramping, irregular periods, and spotting began impacting Vasquez’s life. She went online for research and found studies linking tear gas exposure to reproductive issues. When she posted about her health issues on the popular platform TikTok, she started getting responses from other people who had had similar side effects from the tear gas.
“I was aware of all of these things happening at once, and it was just a matter of putting the pieces together,” she said.
Vasquez’s symptoms only got worse.
“It was pretty obvious that I needed to move because I was in a lot of pain,” she said. “I mean I have never experienced cramping like this.”
During quarantine, when many people’s only reprieve from the confinements of home was a quick walk in their neighborhood, Vasquez couldn’t even do that. She made the difficult decision to leave the neighborhood she had lived in for almost a decade.
“It just felt less and less like I was safe in my home, and I was not safe right outside of my home, so I felt like I needed to move and I did,” She said. “And once I moved the symptoms started to subside quite a bit.”
Vasquez knew she wanted to take legal action against the city.
“This is impact litigation.”
Portland lawyer Micheal Fuller took on Vasquez’s case. He said he sent a tort claim notice to the city back in August 2020 on Vasquez’s behalf, putting them on notice that they had researched and believed that she had a claim for damages.
“No offers were made to settle,” Fuller said. “No promises were made to stop using tear gas.”
Now Fuller and Vasquez are moving forward with a publicly filed civil rights complaint.
“Which we believe it to be the first of its kind,” Fuller said. “If not in the country, certainly in Oregon, where a claimant is seeking damages solely for menstruation related to injuries caused by tear gas.”
The complaint filed Monday requests a jury trial, seeking compensation up to $10,000 and a judgment that the city of Portland was negligent in their use of tear gas. The judgement could impact the city’s decisions to use tear gas in the future.
“Generally, we’re asking for the full cessation of the use of tear gas in populated areas of the city,” Fuller said.
The city can try to get the case thrown out. Fuller said it will ultimately be up to a judge whether or not there are grounds for a jury trial. But he’s confident the case will make it to court.
“That judge will decide if there’s enough evidence to warrant a jury trial, so my job over the next few months will be to gather that evidence,” Fuller said. “We have already retained at least one expert who will explain to the jury the causal effect between changes in the menstrual cycle and tear gas in the community, so it’s highly likely this is a case that is going to have to be decided by a jury.”
“It was an assault on the entire city”
For Vasquez, the case is a chance to help others who have dealt with similar issues from exposure to tear gas.
“When you raise awareness with a lawsuit it can help other people,” Vasquez said.
Mayor Ted Wheeler received scrutiny for the use of tear gas last year as many people complained the chemical was getting into their residences. In June, Wheeler had restricted the use of the gas to times when lives were at risk, but its semi-regular use continued to outrage protesters and people living in areas where it was used.
“This was an assault on us as people,” Vasquez said. “The mayor who was the police commissioner at the time, Ted Wheeler. He was also the same mayor that six years ago when we had a huge snowstorm wouldn’t salt the roads because he was worried about the environmental impact, and now he’s sending out people to pour tear gas on top of all of us on the entire city for weeks and weeks and weeks at a time.”
“It was an assault on the entire city,” Vasquez said.
Wheeler banned the city’s police force from using CS gas, a widely used form of tear gas, to disperse protesters on September 10, 2020. However, that order occurred after more than three months of protests where the gas was used to disperse crowds, and people like Vasquez say they were repeatedly exposed.
The litigation could take months, but Vasquez says it’s worth the effort to hold the people in charge in Portland accountable.
“If I end up not being able to have children or something because of this, on top of the physical discomfort, pain, jobs I’ve lost out on, and having to move, it just doesn’t seem right,” she said. “My city did this to me.”