As a former Army captain, I can attest to the fact that military personnel depend on many things for protection as they serve. No matter the branch we’re in or the job we have, there is always some level of inherent risk. It’s a no-brainer that any product provided to the military for servicemembers should be adequately tested for safety and effectiveness – to prevent even more (and unnecessary) danger. So, when litigation began building over defective 3M Combat Arms earplugs, I don’t doubt it resonated as deeply with many servicemembers as it did with me. This product, which was widely sold to the U.S. military, and has literally one job – to protect soldiers’ hearing – did exactly the opposite, and that’s unacceptable.
Since the lawsuit against 3M began in 2018, it has gained major momentum as hundreds of thousands of military members have come forward alleging that they’ve suffered from tinnitus and hearing loss. The 3M Combat Arms Earplug Products Liability Litigation, consolidated in U.S. District Court in Pensacola, FL, has grown to become the largest multidistrict litigation (MDL) ever. For reference, the number of plaintiffs has surpassed the massive 1991 asbestos litigation.
How could a product that’s so seemingly simple fail so miserably? The Combat Arms earplugs are dual ended, where one side is meant to block all noise, whereas the other side only blocks harmful loud noises (like explosive sounds) while still letting in voice commands. During the first bellwether trial in the litigation last month, the plaintiffs’ attorneys produced evidence that Aearo Technologies, which 3M later acquired, knew for years that one of the flaps in the earplug could create a fitting issue that could lessen its effectiveness. Still, Aearo and 3M both failed to warn about the findings that could potentially harm military members’ hearing permanently.
The first bellwether trial concluded in favor of the plaintiffs – three Army veterans who suffered from noise-induced hearing loss. The jury found 3M to be 100 percent at fault and hit the company with a $7.1 million verdict. Most of that verdict is in the form of punitive damages, which are meant to punish the defendant for particularly egregious behavior. “The three veterans’ hearing damage was caused by 3M’s greed,” said Jennifer Hoekstra, partner at Aylstock, Witkin, Kreis, & Overholtz, PLLC, the firm that represented the plaintiffs. “The jury understood the military’s sense of duty and validated the impact of hearing damage on their lives. The values awarded reflect those injuries.”
This verdict is a big win for hundreds of thousands of military members who suffered hearing loss, but it also sends a message that companies must do their due diligence to protect the people who rely on their products for safety and protection. My firm is closely following the litigation, and we are cheering on the entire plaintiffs’ team as they take 3M to task for its failure.
A West Point graduate where he served as captain and military aviator, John Bair continues his commitment to our country through his efforts within the settlement planning industry. He has represented families of victims lost in the Flight 3407 crash, offered pro bono services to the families of 9/11 victims and drafted the first consumer protection bill for plaintiffs (H.R. 3699).