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What’s the problem with 3M’s earplugs?

On Behalf of | Oct 31, 2022 | Products Liability

In 2021, the United States Courts released information about all the cases filed in federal courts before March 31. The number of civil lawsuits had shot up by 39 percent that year. However, the sharp increase wasn’t due to increases across the board. It was due to one thing—the introduction of 190,000 lawsuits against 3M for faulty earplugs.

Why had so many people filed suit? What was the big deal? These are questions that continue to affect the many U.S. service members, past and present, who suffered because of 3M’s failures.

The problem

Forbes offers a good summary of the problem’s general history:

  • In the late 1990s, Aearo Technologies Inc. partnered with the U.S. military to create dual-purpose earplugs. Worn one way, they were meant to protect wearers from loud combat noises. Worn the other direction, they could protect wearers from some louder noises, but still allow them to hear sounds up close.
  • Many service members, however, claim the earplugs were designed too short to protect their ears from damaging noise. Because they were too short, the earplugs failed to seal and protect the wearers’ ears from the loud sounds. This meant the wearers remained vulnerable to the damaging effects of the noise.
  • The service members maintain that 3M knew of this design flaw when it purchased Aearo Technologies, but it failed to warn service members that the earplugs may not work for everyone.
  • Service members who suffered hearing loss and damage such as tinnitus are seeking compensation. As Forbes notes, American veterans suffer from hearing problems more than from any other service-related disability. And the number of veterans suffering from tinnitus rose sharply during the period Aearo’s earplugs were in use. In 2001, roughly 0.18% of veterans suffered from tinnitus. In 2015, after Aearo’s earplugs had been in use for 12 years, the number had grown to 0.68%.

In short, the earplugs that Aearo designed were defective. 3M knew this after it bought the company, but it continued to sell the earplugs without a warning. As a result, thousands of veterans now suffer from tinnitus and other hearing problems.

The lawsuits

Importantly, the veterans did not file their complaints as a single class action. In a class action, the plaintiffs all attest that they suffered similar damages and file a single lawsuit to resolve their damages. Typically, this means a single law firm handles the case, and all the plaintiffs split the rewards evenly.

In this case, however, the veterans have reported different types of damage. As a result, they have filed their cases individually, not as a collective. Still, the sheer volume of complaints has forced the courts to respond. They sent all the lawsuits to a single district court in Florida. That allows the court to more efficiently resolve the discovery and pretrial process. It also allows the court to try several early, representative cases that set the stage for subsequent trials. The results for these cases have been mixed:

  • Injured veterans have won 10
  • 3M has won 6

Veterans have continued to come forward with their cases after learning about the problem. As the U.S. Courts noted, an additional 64,000 veterans joined their fellow service members in suing 3M by March 2022. Depending on the statutes of limitation in their states, some veterans may still choose to join this mass tort.

Can I win my case?

If you are still able to bring your case to court, you might wonder whether you’re likely to get anything for your efforts. Here, the answer depends largely on the circumstances of your case and the quality of your representation. Despite the fact plaintiffs have won more cases than they’ve lost, 3M continues to fight in court, claiming it benefits from government-contractor immunity.

This argument failed to convince the judge in any of the early trials. While 3M has raised it again with the cases it has appealed, it’s important to note that you wouldn’t have to pay anything to bring your case to court. Attorneys in these personal injury cases only receive payment after their clients get paid, and many offer free consultations.

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