3M Combat Arms Earplugs
In 2003, the United States government contracted Aearo Technologies to supply special earplug packages to soldiers. Aearo was bought by 3M a few years later, and the earplugs were sold to the military until 2015.
Although 3M conducted testing, which showed that these earplugs were defective, they allegedly falsified certification by stating that the tests conformed to military standards. Many veterans who used them may have experienced hearing injuries as a result.
The company ended up paying a $9 billion settlement to the government in 2018. Out of these funds, $1.9 billion was awarded to a whistleblower who reported 3M for selling the defective devices to the government. Although there was a large monetary payout, 3M did not admit responsibility.
Then, in 2019, hundreds of veterans filed lawsuits against 3M, claiming that these earplugs failed to maintain tight seals, allowing dangerous, loud signs to get into their ears. They alleged that the plugs had defective designs and that proper usage instructions were not provided. This purportedly led to tinnitus, loss of balance, and hearing loss.
Evolution of the Earplugs
It is well-known that combat operations, noises from vehicles, explosions, and extended training periods all increase the risk for hearing loss and other injuries in soldiers. During the war in Iraq, the use of mortar rounds, improvised explosives, and rocket-propelled grenades increased these risks even further. These were strong incentives that pushed the need for effective military personnel earplugs.
Aearo Technologies won a contract to supply their dual-ended Combat Arms Earplugs to the military and it went into effect in 2003. 3M bought Aearo in 2008 and assumed the contract. The earplugs were manufactured from 2003 to 2015, and were used to protect military personnel from exceptionally loud sounds and high noise levels, like gunfire and explosions.
During this time, 3M’s exclusive deal with the U.S. military allowed them to supply approximately 15,000 earplug packages annually with the guaranteed price of approximately $9 million in annual sales. The Combat Arms Earplugs were standard issue military equipment. According to the American Journal of Public Health, the U.S. Marines Corps were so impressed with the effectiveness of the earplugs that they ordered 20,000 pairs.
How Do the Earplugs Work?
The Combat Arms Earplugs have Closed/Constant Protection and Open/Weapons Fire modes. The closed mode was designed to provide constant protection for lower-level noises, like approaching enemies, airplanes, and vehicles. The open mode was designed for high-pitched sounds, like gunfire. The open mode still allowed users to hear lower noise levels, and users can alternate between the different modes with an in-ear mechanism.
The earplugs were supposed to shield ears from decibel levels up to 190 dB with a noise reduction rating (NRR) of 22 dB in the closed mode. These standards were supposed to be adequate enough to guard against loud sounds made by most of the military weapons.
What is Defective About the Earplugs?
It was found that the earplugs were not long enough to be properly inserted into the user’s ear canals, so over time, the earplugs tended to loosen up. The defect exists in the stems, which are too short to offer full protection for some users. This gradually allowed increasing amounts of noise, although the wearers did not realize it. In essence, anyone whose earplugs were too short had an increased risk for developing hearing damage.
According to some sources, these earplugs also had an issue with their NRR. While the company claimed that it was higher, it was reported that it actually averaged 10.9, which is far below military standards.
The lawsuits allege that 3M knew about the defects, but they falsified the certification. Therefore, the defective earplugs were not recalled, so they are likely still being sold from other vendors and being used by some soldiers.
Inadequate protection from just one extremely loud sound can lead to permanent hearing damage. Hearing loss is the main reason why military veterans file for disability through the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
When Did the Lawsuits Start?
The federal whistleblower lawsuit was brought by Moldex-Metric Inc. in 2018 under the False Claims Act. This act allows private parties to sue others on behalf of the U.S. government if the parties believe that false claims were made to receive government funds. It was alleged that 3M knowingly sold the dual-ended Combat Arms Earplugs, Version 2 (CAEv2), to the U.S. military without disclosing any defects.
This suit determined that 3M was aware of the defects and that they had purposely withheld the information. They agreed to settle with the United States Justice Department, but there was no admission of liability.
Although 3M stopped selling the earplugs, they did not issue recalls. In April 2020, a judge released records showing that the earplugs cost 3M about 85 cents a pair to manufacture and were sold for $7.63 to the military. The earplugs were sold to all four branches, and the majority of victims seem to be army veterans between 30 and 49 years old.
As of July 2020, there was close to 140,000 registered claimants involved with the 3M Combat Arms Earplugs litigation, and it is possible that many more veterans will be taking action.
Who is at Risk?
Veterans who served in the U.S. military from 2002 to 2016 who used 3M Combat Arms Earplugs could be at higher risk for hearing loss and other complications. These personnel may have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Operation Ocean Shield, Yemeni, and Syria. According to the Hearing Health Foundation, in 2017, more than 1.16 million veterans received disability compensation for hearing loss, and 1.79 million veterans received compensation for tinnitus.
Noise exposure in the military can be constant and can adversely affect one’s health and well-being. It can go hand-in-hand with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety, leading to a poor quality of life.
Military personnel are not the only ones who were issued 3M’s Combat Arms Earplugs, though. They were also sold to law enforcement, other industries, and the public. Police officers used these earplugs on training grounds and at target ranges.
How Can I Reduce My Risk for Hearing Loss?
There are some ways to reduce the risk for noise-induced hearing loss. The first step is to become educated about what qualifies as hazardous noise, understanding the possible consequences of exposure, and how to reduce the dangers.
Proper hearing protection devices should be used with guidance from a professional. High volumes should also not be used on personal listening devices, like earbuds. If hearing loss or other problems are suspected, it is essential to contact an audiologist; yearly exams are also recommended.
Am I Eligible to Pursue a Lawsuit?
Documents that have been filed allege that 3M knew about the defects as early as 2000, and there might be certain qualifications to qualify for a lawsuit. These include having had served in the military between 2003 and 2015, wearing military-issued 3M Combat Arms Earplugs while serving, being exposed to loud sounds during that time, and a medical diagnosis of tinnitus or hearing loss. It is important to keep in mind that it could be several years until a global settlement is reached.
Huntsville Products Liability Lawyers at Hodges Trial Lawyers, P.C. Help Victims Injured by 3M Combat Arms Earplugs
Although we put our trust in the products we use, there are many times when they deliver harm instead of good. If you have hearing loss, tinnitus, or other ill effects from using 3M earplugs, reach out to one of our experienced Huntsville products liability lawyers at Hodges Trial Lawyers, P.C. today. For an initial consultation, call us at 256-539-3110 or complete our online form. Located in Huntsville and Athens, Alabama, we serve clients throughout North Alabama, Madison County, Limestone County, Marshall County, Jackson County, Morgan County, and Lauderdale County.