The 3M Company announced that it intends to create a $1 billion trust to settle the remaining 3M earplug lawsuits. This announcement comes nearly four years after the 3M earplugs multi-district litigation began. Since its conception in 2018, the federal MDL has become the largest mass tort litigation in history. However, attorneys accuse 3M of undervaluing the plight of United States service members who used the 3M Combat Arms earplugs. Plaintiffs and attorneys alike decry 3M’s decision to only allocate $1 billion as insufficient and deplorable.
What are 3M Combat Earplugs?
Aearo Technologies originally created the Combat Arms earplugs in 1998 to protect service members’ ears from aircraft, artillery, and explosives. The unique design of the Dual-Ended Combat Arms earplugs provided users with two options. The olive-colored end blocked all sound completely, while the yellow-colored end reduced loud sounds but allowed users to partially hear. With these earplugs, service members could still listen to commands and strategize while supposedly preserving their hearing.
Aearo won a lucrative and exclusive contract to supply the U.S. military with its dual-ended earplugs from 2003 to 2012. Then in 2008, the 3M Company acquired Aearo Technologies for $1.2 billion. Dual-Ended Combat Arms earplugs became standard issue for hundreds of thousands of service members in the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines. Also, the armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan exclusively used 3M earplugs.
However, a design defect left the earplug stems too short. This shortened stem prevented users from inserting the earplugs deeply into the ear canals and resulted in an inadequate seal. The faulty seal caused earplugs to become loose and rendered the earplugs unable to protect the user’s hearing.
3M Ongoing Litigation
According to the JPML docket, as of July 15, 2022, there are over 290,000 outstanding 3M earplug lawsuits under MDL-2885. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of service members have filed lawsuits against 3M for the allegedly defective earplugs. Lawsuits accuse 3M of neglecting to disclose the problems associated with the Dual-Ended Combat Arms earplugs to the military. Plaintiffs argue that 3M’s refusal to adequately inform the military about the risks of the earplugs cost countless service members their hearing.
Although 3M denies these accusations, the company agreed to pay The Department of Justice $9.1 million in 2018 after a whistleblower lawsuit claimed the company knowingly supplied the military with ineffective earplugs. Furthermore, through a series of bellwether trials under MDL-2885, plaintiffs have won over $200 million against the 3M Company.
3M Proposed Trust
With more cases expected to join the already massive MDL next year, 3M revealed on July 26, 2022, that it intends to put $1 billion in a trust to settle all claims entitled to compensation. The company stated that this $1 billion trust would lead to a more effective and fair resolution to the lawsuits. Per this plan, Aearo Technologies will also enter voluntary bankruptcy but will continue its normal course of operation. In addition to the $1 billion, 3M claimed it would commit another $240 million to fund project related case expenses. If 3M is allowed to move forward with the bankruptcy plan this will place a stay on litigation and delay the settlement process for plaintiffs.
News of this project infuriated service members and attorneys. Plaintiffs argue that $1 billion distributed to hundreds of thousands of claimants would only leave veterans with less than $5,000 each. Many argue that this measly amount does not even begin to make up for the life-altering hearing damage caused by 3M earplugs. Plaintiff Joseph Sigmon, a veteran who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, said “Would 3M CEO Mike Roman want to lose his hearing in exchange for $5,000? Our fight has just begun, and 3M will regret taking on those who served our nation and defended the values 3M treats with such contempt,” in response to 3M’s decision.