The case involves the Minnesota-based company’s Combat Arms Earplugs, Version 2, which were widely used by troops deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2015.
The plaintiffs blame 3M for hearing loss and related issues, alleging that the firm was aware that the gear had problems, coming loose and not properly shielding its users from loud sounds. Due to the huge number of people involved in the suit, the claims have been consolidated in what is known as multidistrict litigation. The first trial, which combines the cases of three army veterans, has started in Pensacola, Florida and is expected to last through April. Two other trials are expected to take place by the end of the year. If any of the three cases end with juries granting large rewards to the plaintiffs, 3M may be compelled to agree a settlement. The mass tort has been described as the largest multidistrict litigation suits in history, dwarfing the number of plaintiffs involved in suits alleging harm from weedkillers, blood thinners and other products.
One soldier who is suing 3M told the Wall Street Journal that the earplugs had failed to block out the sounds of aircraft and artillery, leading to premature hearing loss and a ringing in his ears known as tinnitus. He described the issue as a constant struggle and said he has to play ambient noise while he sleeps to help soften the ringing in his ears.
At the opening of the trial in late March, an attorney representing the service members and veterans argued that 3M had failed to warn of the “risks” associated with its product, and that as a result, the plaintiffs would suffer from hearing damage “for the rest of their life.”
3M, which is perhaps best known for its N95 face mask, said in a statement that the earplugs had been designed with the Pentagon’s input and that the US military was responsible for training soldiers to use them properly.
“It’s not like you can just hand them out and say, ‘Use this product, you’re going to be good,’” an attorney for 3M said during opening statements. “It has to be fit properly.”
In 2018, 3M agreed to a $9.1 million settlement after the US government claimed that the plugs did not work as advertised. 3M did not admit liability in the settlement, however.
Hearing loss is the leading service-related disability in the US military, with more than one million veterans receiving compensation for the issue, according to government figures from 2015.
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