It appears 3M has been ordered (again) to pay out a large sum of money, this time for defective earplugs sold to the military many years ago. The 3M Company has agreed to pay $9.1 million to settle allegations it knowingly sold defective combat earplugs to the United States military without disclosing defects that limited the effectiveness of the devices, according to an announcement from the U.S. Justice Department last week.
The payment settles allegations that 3M and its predecessor, Aearo Technologies Inc., were aware that the earplugs sold to the military were too short for proper insertion into the ears, would loosen, and not effectively protect the users’ ears. Military members who used the defective earplugs may suffer from tinnitus (ringing in in the ears), hearing loss, and other ear and hearing-related problems.
The now-discontinued Combat Arms™ Earplugs Version 2 were standard equipment for military deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq between 2003 and 2015; more than 2.6 million veterans have received disability compensation for hearing loss and tinnitus. According to reports, over 1.6 million veterans have reported service-connected tinnitus. About 80% of those who suffer with the condition just live with it, and 20% of sufferers are so affected by it, they will seek medical attention.
3M: Long History of Liability
The Minnesota-based company that makes many commonly used office products, home improvement supplies, and cleaning products has had a rash of multi-million dollar liability suits in just the last couple of years.
In August 2017, a woman who was diagnosed with renal cancer claimed that the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority knew its drinking water was unsafe for years before attempting to remove the toxins PFOS and PFOA. The lawsuit claimed that 3M knew that dumping hazardous chemicals contaminated the water in the Tennessee River, but the company failed to warn about the toxins.
In February 2018, 3M reached an $850 million settlement with Minnesota for contributing to toxins in the drinking water (very similar to what occurred in the Tennessee River). After this settlement, the state of New York filed suit, and then Michigan Governor Rick Snyder asked his state’s attorney general to sue 3M. Since that time, several personal injury, class action, and property damage lawsuits have been filed against 3M in various parts of the country, and all told, 3M’s liability will likely be in the billions.
3M Military Earplugs
In this most recent settlement, the U.S. government alleged that 3M knew that the earplugs were too short to be properly inserted into the users’ ears and that, in time, the earplugs would gradually loosen until they were completely ineffective in protecting the ears of those who inserted them. The suit claimed that 3M knew about the design defect but did not disclose this information to the United States military when the contract was finalized.
False Claims Act Provision
The lawsuit’s allegations were brought about under whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act, which allows private parties to sue on behalf of the government if the defendants submitted false claims for government funds. The law also allows whistleblowers to share in any funds recovered from a successful lawsuit; in this case, the whistleblower will receive just under $2 million.
The lawsuit was brought as a joint effort from the Civil Division of the DOJ, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for South Carolina, the Army Criminal Investigation Command, and the Defense Criminal Investigative Service.
If you are a veteran who was harmed by 3M’s defective earplugs or if a family member was harmed, please contact an attorney for help with your claim.