3M Company agreed to pay $9.1 million to the United States government to resolve allegations raised in a whistleblower lawsuit that the contractor knowingly sold defective combat arms earplugs to the U.S. military, allegedly putting servicemembers at risk for hearing loss and tinnitus, among other problems. The allegations were brought under the whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act, which allows private parties to sue on behalf of the government in cases of fraud, where it is believed defendants may have submitted false claims for government funds. The settlement was the result of a joint effort by the Civil Division of the Department of Justice, the Army Criminal Investigation Command, the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina.
Hearing Loss from Defective Military Earplugs
Tinnitus and hearing loss are two of the most prevalent service-related disabilities affecting veterans today, and combat earplugs like 3M’s Dual-Ended Combat Arms Earplugs, Version 2 (CAEv2) plugs are specifically designed to reduce the risk of these problems by providing increased noise cancellation. CAEv2 earplugs are “selective attenuation earplugs” meant to protect members of the armed forces from high-level noises like weapons fire and explosions, as well as constant noise such as that from armored vehicles and aircraft, all of which can damage their hearing.
3M’s combat arms earplugs are meant to be worn by military servicemembers in two ways. The earplugs are shaped like two inverted cones connected by a stem and are designed to be inserted into the ear one way to allow users to hear speech or the other way to provide greater noise protection. Unfortunately, flaws in the earplugs’ design may have kept them from going deep enough into the ears of certain users, and as a result, the earplugs may have failed to provide the desired noise cancellation.
3M Knew About Problems with its Combat Earplugs
According to allegations raised in the whistleblower lawsuit, 3M and its predecessor, Aearo Technologies, Inc., knew that the CAEv2 combat earplug was too short for proper insertion into some users’ ears, a problem that could therefore allow the earplugs to loosen imperceptibly and decrease the effectiveness of the hearing protection the device was designed for. In fact, the lawsuit alleged that Aearo Technologies, which was acquired by 3M in 2008, knew about the combat earplugs defect as early as 2000, several years before the contractor became the exclusive provider of selective attenuation earplugs to the military, yet failed to disclose this design defect to the military when the contract was finalized, thereby knowingly putting military servicemembers at risk for hearing loss, tinnitus and other hearing problems.
By failing to provide adequate warnings about the potential for its combat earplugs to loosen and provide insufficient noise cancellation for certain users, 3M allowed its defective earplugs to be issued to thousands of servicemembers deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq from 2003 to 2015. What’s more, the whistleblower lawsuit alleged that 3M and Aearo actually manipulated test results to make it appear as though the earplugs met government standards. “In addition to damages directly associated with the contractual cost of the earplugs,” the lawsuit stated, “the United States has been damaged by the large and ongoing medical costs associated with treating veterans who likely suffered hearing damage and impairment as a result of the defective earplugs.”
Attorneys are Preparing Combat Earplug Hearing Loss Lawsuits
Because they were issued allegedly defective combat earplugs manufactured by 3M, thousands of military servicemembers may have suffered hearing loss or impairment that could have been avoided had the contractor provided adequate warnings about the earplugs’ potential design defects. If you were active in any branch of the military, including Reserves and National Guard, between 2003 and 2015, and you have suffered hearing loss, impairment, tinnitus or another debilitating hearing problem, you may have options for legal recourse. Attorneys across the country are now investigating combat earplug hearing loss claims and are preparing to file lawsuits on behalf of military servicemembers and veterans whose hearing was affected by defective earplugs.