On July 27, 2020, a federal district court judge struck a major blow against 3M, the company that manufactured military earplugs used by American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans across the country have sued 3M, saying the earplugs were defective and led to major hearing loss, tinnitus, and other long-term problems.
Judge M. Casey Rodgers, a District Court judge for the Northern District of Florida, ruled that 3M cannot invoke immunity under the government contract defense. The government contract defense provides legal immunity to companies designing and developing products for the federal government. 3M argued that the faulty ear plug design was mandated by the U.S. Army, a claim that Judge Rodgers rejected.
“Casey ruled that no reasonable jury could conclude that the Army made the company do anything or dictated precise specifications for the earplugs’ design,” Reuters reported.
Dozens of lawsuits against 3M accuse the company of “willingly and knowingly” manufacturing defective earplugs for use by American military personnel. Attorneys for veterans allege that 3M knew about the defects as early as 2000—before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—but kept them on the market until 2015. The earplugs, which have since been discontinued, were marketed as having “Dual-Ended Combat Arms,” which allowed the wearer to hear low-level sounds while blocking out the sounds of explosions and gunfire. However, the “arms” of the earplugs were often too short to be properly inserted into the ear. The lawsuits claim they also had a loose flange that caused them to fall out of the ear.
3M denied any wrongdoing and said it will vigorously defend itself against the lawsuits. However, in July 2018, the company agreed to pay $9.1 million to settle some of the cases. 3M admitted they knew about the defect but did not warn consumers, a violation of the federal False Claims Act.
“Today’s settlement will ensure that those who do business with the government know that their actions will not go unnoticed,” Frank Robey, director of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command’s Major Procurement Fraud Unit, said in response to the settlement. “Properly made safety equipment, for use by our Soldiers, is vital to our military’s readiness. Our agents will respond robustly to protect the safety of our military.”
Scores of new defective ear plug lawsuits on behalf of veterans have since been transferred to the Northern District of Florida. Now that Judge Rodgers has ruled the lawsuits can proceed, 3M will have to defend its product liability case in court.
Regardless of whether 3M knowingly sold defective earplugs to the United States military, the fallout for veterans has been very real. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs lists hearing loss and tinnitus—ringing in the ears—as the top two disabilities suffered by veterans. Nearly two million veterans receive disability compensation for these conditions. Other veterans experience chronic ear pain, as well as loss of enjoyment of life due to profound hearing loss from time in the military.
If you or a loved one used 3M military earplugs and have hearing loss, tinnitus, or another condition that may be related to faulty earplugs, contact the attorneys at Tittle & Perlmuter today. We’re here to help you hold the responsible parties accountable for their negligence.