A U.S. Army veteran from Texas, who was deployed to Iraq in March 2003, didn’t notice the ringing in his ears until he returned home a year later. Fast-forward more than 15 years, and the ringing in his ears persists. Doctors believe the ringing is likely to continue for the rest of his life. This same veteran is also experiencing substantial hearing loss in both ears.
It was with these life-altering symptoms that the Texas veteran decided, in January 2019, to file a lawsuit in a U.S. District Court in Waco, Texas against the multibillion-dollar company 3M. 3M made the earplugs that were supposed to prevent hearing impairment for soldiers in combat-area warzones and supplied them to the U.S. military.
In his claim, the veteran alleged that the company supplied defective earplugs to the military, which led to his hearing loss and the persistent high-pitched ringing in his ears known as chronic tinnitus – a condition for which there is no known cure.
The unfortunate reality is this veteran’s story is but one of thousands of similar hearing-impairment cases that have occurred as a result of defective earplugs supplied by 3M to the military.
3M Allegedly Knew Earplugs Were Defective
According to the complaint, the U.S. military awarded Aearo Technologies, LLC an exclusive contract in 2003 to supply the company’s Dual-Ended Combat Arms earplugs (CAEv2) to soldiers between 2003 and 2015. Aearo Technologies, LLC is a subsidiary of 3M. The earplugs were standard issue, designed to protect soldiers’ ears and hearing during exposure to gunfire, explosions and other loud combat-related noises.
With their dual-ended design, the earplugs were created to be worn in two capacities: first, as an eardrum-protecting apparatus that blocks out all the sounds of heavy combat, and second, upon the reversal of the plugs, as a means of hearing fellow soldiers but still blocking out potentially eardrum-damaging sounds.
Aearo failed to disclose that the earplugs were too short to fit properly and were prone to coming loose, a fact that was unknown to those who wore them. Allegedly, Aearo also exaggerated the products’ noise reduction rating and did not share with the military some critical information: In order for the earplugs to function properly, the flanges on them had to be folded back, allowing them to be placed deeper inside the ear canal.
It’s been alleged that Aearo knew of the earplugs’ design flaws as far back as 2000 and failed to warn users of any defects. In addition, Aearo has been accused of doctoring test results to keep its contract with the military for another decade.
Based in Minnesota, 3M is well known as an office-supply company of best-selling products such as Scotch tape and Post-it notes. The company purchased Aearo Technologies, LLC in 2008 and took over the contract for the Combat Arms earplugs, continuing as the exclusive supplier of earplugs for the U.S. military. 3M discontinued making the Combat Arms earplugs in 2015 and claims that no current 3M products are involved in the lawsuit.
Hearing Loss: A Common Problem for Veterans
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), hearing loss, tinnitus and other hearing-related problems are the most common medical issues among veterans. In 2014, more than 933,000 veterans were receiving compensation for disabilities related to hearing loss, and another 1.3 million were being paid benefits specifically for tinnitus.
While some veterans do pass hearing tests, they might still have difficulty understanding speech, a condition known as an auditory processing disorder. In some cases, hearing loss can be reversed by surgery or medication, but for many, hearing loss is permanent.
Hearing aids can help, but according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, only 20 percent of those who would benefit from hearing aids actually use them.
Military Ear Plug Lawsuits
In 2016, earplug competitor Moldex-Metric, Inc. brought a whistleblower lawsuit against 3M under the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act. The lawsuit alleged that U.S. military earplugs issued from 2003 to 2015 had a known design defect that caused them to gradually loosen in users’ ears, rendering them ineffective.
After two years, 3M agreed to pay the U.S. government $9.1 million to settle the claim. According to court documents, however, 3M did not admit to any wrongdoing in spite of its payout.
Since the $9.1 million settlement, at least 10 other lawsuits have been filed in courts around the country including in California, Oklahoma and Texas. 3M continues to deny liability. Experts contend 3M is likely to face thousands of hearing-loss lawsuits in the coming years over the poor performance of the Combat Arms earplugs.
Although the details of each lawsuit differ, they all make the following common allegations against 3M and its subsidiary, Aearo Technologies, LLC, claiming the companies:
- Knew the Combat Arms earplugs were defective.
- Failed to provide the military with critical instructions explaining how to properly fit and handle the earplugs.
- Deliberately manipulated product testing results to overstate the earplugs’ internal noise reduction rating (NRR).
- Used inaccurate test results to continue marketing the defective earplugs to the military.
If you are a veteran who is experiencing hearing loss that you believe is connected to your use of military earplugs, contact the consumer advocates at Consumer Safety Law to learn more about how we can help you defend your rights.