Thousands of veterans struggling with hearing loss, tinnitus and other debilitating hearing problems are suing 3M Company and its subsidiary Aearo Technologies, LLC for manufacturing and distributing defective combat arms earplugs to the U.S. military for years as part of a multimillion-dollar contract. From 2003 to 2015, 3M’s Combat Arms Earplugs, Version 2 (CAEv2) were considered standard issue for soldiers in the Middle East, and during that time, the design flaw that rendered the earplugs less effective than expected went undetected. Now veterans and active military personnel are fighting back, pursuing compensation from 3M for knowingly manufacturing and distributing defective earplugs to the U.S. military and for falsifying the results of testing showing that the earplugs didn’t work as intended or advertised.
For soldiers in combat zones and training regularly exposed to high-level noises from aircraft, weapons fire and explosions, earplugs are necessary to protect their hearing. Hearing loss is one of the most common and widespread issues affecting veterans and active military personnel and while loud noises are an unavoidable aspect of military duty, many members of the U.S. military may have been needlessly exposed to permanent hearing loss and auditory damage due to defective combat earplugs manufactured by 3M Company. As a result, thousands of military servicemembers are pursuing compensation from 3M for injuries, medical bills, pain and suffering, loss of consortium and other damages.
3M’s earplugs are dual-ended, or two-sided. One side is meant to block out all sound, like a normal earplug, while the other side is meant to allow the wearer to hear low-level conversations, while still blocking out loud noises. But the U.S. Department of Justice, which reached a $9 million settlement with 3M in 2018, says that the company’s own testing showed that the earplugs didn’t fit the ear properly and therefore didn’t work as intended. According to 3M’s testing, the side of the earplug designed to let some sound in tested at negative 2 NRR (Noise Reduction Rating), which means it actually amplified noise, rather than blocking it out. Furthermore, while older foam earplugs used by the military reduced noise levels by 30 to 40 decibels, the side of 3M’s Combat Arms Earplugs designed to block out all sound reportedly only reduced noise by about 11 decibels.
The issue with 3M’s trademarked Combat Arms Earplugs is that the earplugs are too short to be properly inserted into the ear, which meant they did not have a tight seal and could loosen imperceptibly without the wearer noticing. As a result, many military servicemembers were unknowingly exposed to permanent and irreversible hearing loss or tinnitus due to loud noises while wearing the earplugs. According to allegations raised in thousands of 3M earplugs lawsuits, 3M knew based on their own testing that the Combat Arms Earplugs didn’t work as intended, yet still sold them to the military for more than 10 years, exposing thousands of military personnel to permanent auditory damage and hearing loss due to a lack of protection against loud noises.
Since 2003, 3M claimed that its patented earplugs allowed users to hear commands from fellow soldiers while protecting them from high-level noises, and in 2006, the U.S. government entered into a contract with 3M, in which the company agreed to provide an annual quantity of roughly 750,000 pairs of earplugs, at a guaranteed price of at least $9 million in sales for the year. For more than a decade, military servicemembers wore the earplugs in combat and training, unaware that they were defectively designed. Court documents suggest that 3M employees knew about the earplug defects as early as 2000, yet withheld this information from the government and the U.S. military, despite knowing that members of the U.S. military would be relying on the defective equipment in combat. The defective earplugs were sold to the military until 2015, when 3M discontinued the product. However, the company never issued a recall of the earplugs, which are still likely being sold by other vendors and used by soldiers.
Lawsuits currently pending against 3M accuse the Minnesota-based company of designing the Combat Arms Earplugs in a defective manner, failing to notify users or the government about the design defects concerning the earplugs and failing to provide proper instructions for their use. 3M maintains its innocence in the matter, stating that the company “[…] worked in close coordination with the U.S. military on the Combat Arms Earplugs Version 2 product, and its design reflected the direction and feedback of individuals acting on the military’s behalf. We deny this product was defectively designed and will vigorously defend ourselves against such allegations.”
The U.S. government previously filed its own lawsuit against 3M under the qui tam provision of the False Claims Act, alleging that the company knowingly sold its Combat Arms Earplugs to the Defense Logistics Agency without disclosing defects that decreased the earplugs’ hearing protection and falsely represented the noise reduction rating of the earplugs. 3M settled the whistleblower lawsuit with the Department of Justice for $9.1 million, resolving allegations that the company violated the False Claims Act by selling defective earplugs to the government, but did not admit any wrongdoing. As far as the individual lawsuits currently pending against 3M Company across the country, they have been consolidated for coordinated pretrial proceedings as part of a multidistrict litigation (MDL) in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.