A Defect in 3M Earplugs Caused Hearing Loss in Armed Services Members

On Behalf of | Sep 13, 2019 | Firm News |

In July 2018, the 3M company agreed to pay a settlement of $9.1 million to the United States Department of Justice. The company’s combat earplugs, produced to protect the hearing of service members in the US military, were deemed defective by the US Government. The devices failed to form a seal in the ear and did not protect their wearer’s hearing. This resulted in thousands of cases of hearing damage in every branch of the US military for active service members and veterans alike.

What Exactly is the Defective Product?

The defective device in question is the 3M combat earplugs, also called Combat Arms earplugs, version 2 (CAEv2), which are dual-ended to allow for use on either side. Inserted one way, they would block extremely loud sounds. Inserted the other way, they would allow softer sounds to get through. Between 2003 and 2015, 3M was the exclusive provider of earplugs for the US military. Whenever a service member used standard-issue combat earplugs throughout that entire period, they were using defective 3M earplugs.

Unfortunately, the exact number of earplugs given to US soldiers is unknown due to a contract known as Indefinite Quantity Contracts, which was created by 3M. In 2006, a contract proposed providing a minimum of 500,000 pairs of these defective earplugs. There may be around 2,250,000 pairs in all.

Service persons in every branch of the military, including the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and the Coast Guard used these earplugs. Additionally, 3M provided the version 2 Combat Arms earplugs to soldiers serving overseas in Afghanistan, Cameroon, Uganda, and Yemen. In total, American soldiers in over 20 countries were given these defective earplugs and, as a result, were not protected. Because of this, many suffered hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis (a condition where sounds are painfully loud to the ear).

How Were the Earplugs Meant to Work?

According to 3M itself, the earplugs were meant to benefit service members as the devices were two different types of earplugs in a single pair. One end was green and closed and meant to protect the user’s hearing by blocking out loud noise from typical combat dins such as aircraft, watercraft, heavy machinery and tanks, and other large, armored vehicles.

The other end, which is yellow, was meant to protect the wearer’s hearing against deafening sounds, such as gunfire while allowing them to hear lower decibel sounds like speech and vehicles rolling around the battlefield.

Did 3M Know the Product was Defective?

The Department of Justice alleges that 3M was aware their combat earplugs were ineffective as early as 2000, three years before they were standardized in the US military. The company reportedly claimed the earplugs met the standards for ultimate hearing protection per the American National Standards Institute and later provided false claims that allowed them to continue their contract and provide millions of these devices to the military.

What are the Alleged Defects?

The version 2 Combat Arms earplugs’ yellow, open-end was meant to reduce the level of decibels in noises, making it difficult for a user to hear instructions given by their commanding officer. They were supposedly meant to have a 0-decibel rating to allow service members to hear those commands while still having sufficient protection for their hearing against loud noises like suddenly explosions or booms. The tests 3M performed on this side of the earplugs did not comply with the required standards and instead caused a minus-2 decibel level, which resulted in amplification of sounds that led to damage to the users’ ears.

Allegedly, the closed green end of the earplugs was falsely given a 22-decibel sound reduction rating that would provide hearing protection. However, the flaw in the design of the version 2 Combat Arms earplugs reduced the level of protection to around half of what the product was meant to do. As a result of the fraud and the flaw, thousands of soldiers found themselves exposed to extreme amounts of noise that could result in tinnitus, hyperacusis and hearing loss.

There was a notable flaw in the design of the earplugs. Specifically, the stem was too short, meaning that users had difficulty properly inserting either end of the earplugs into their ear canals. Additionally, a component on the tip would prevent the earplugs from being inserted far enough into the ear to form a seal against outside sound. In response to complaints, 3M added instructions that the wearer should roll up the extra piece on the other end while inserting the earplug into their ear.

What Kind of Injuries Did the Earplugs Cause?

Service members who used the defective earplugs have since been diagnosed with hearing-related problems and conditions like tinnitus, hyperacusis, hearing loss, and even deafness. The product has had a considerable negative impact on members of the military who have used them.

It is estimated that between 52 and 60 percent of veterans suffer from hearing loss, with around 2.7 million of them receiving disability as a result. Each year, the VA spends more than $1 billion to treat more than 800,000 veterans for hearing-related problems.

Why is 3M at Fault for This Issue?

The manufacturer of these earplugs had a severe design flaw, which they allegedly knew about years before making an exclusive deal with the government. Moreover, they neglected to provide instructions on proper use. At the same time, they also failed to give warnings about the potential risks of using the version 2 Combat Arms earplugs while service members performed their duties.

The users were instead instructed to either insert the yellow or green ends into their ears based on the specific situation. While the instructions told users about rolling the end piece, they had no warning of the potential dangers to their hearing.

Helping Veterans Heal

If you are an active service member or veteran located in Atlanta or the surrounding area and have suffered hearing loss or other hearing damage after using 3M combat earplugs, you may need help from a skilled attorney.

If you’d like an experienced product liability attorney to review your case, give us a call at 404-566-9460 or send us an email. Contact Pratt Clay, LLC immediately to learn about your options for a personal injury claim.