From 2003 to 2015, millions of U.S. soldiers received special earplugs, designed to protect their hearing from loud noises (like gunfire and explosions) while allowing in quieter sounds. A company called Aearo Technologies originally made these earplugs, before 3M acquired Aearo Technologies in 2008 and took over production.
Over 270,000 service members have filed lawsuits over the 3M's "Dual-Ended Combat Arms Earplugs", claiming that the earplugs didn't work leading to injuries like hearing loss and tinnitus. Let's look at what's happening with the 3M earplug lawsuits.
3M earplugs were designed to be two earplugs in one. They had an olive green side designed to block sound fully and a yellow side meant to let in nearby voices while still blocking harmful sounds like gunfire. But due to an apparent design flaw, the earplugs didn't properly fit into the ear canals of all users and allegedly didn't effectively block out sound.
3M never recalled the defective earplugs, choosing instead to stop production after learning about potential problems with the plugs. So even after 3M became aware of the problems, service members continued to use the earplugs, believing their hearing was being protected. (If a recall had been issued, it likely would have prompted a coordinated effort to stop the military from issuing the earplugs to service members.)
Many service members who used the earplugs are now suing 3M after developing hearing loss, tinnitus, heightened anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
The first notable civil lawsuit over 3M earplugs wasn't related to product liability or personal injury; it was brought under the False Claims Act, which allows a whistleblower to report when a person or business is defrauding the federal government.
In the case of 3M combat earplugs, the whistleblower was manufacturer Moldex-Metric Inc., which alleged:
In July 2018, 3M settled with the U.S. Department of Justice, agreeing to pay $9.1 million without admitting any liability.
Since 2019, hundreds of thousands of service members have filed lawsuits against 3M, saying that 3M defectively designed the earplugs and failed to warn users about known safety concerns, leaving service members with hearing-related injuries.
Most of the 3M lawsuits have been transferred to federal court in Florida in the largest mass tort "multi-district litigation" (MDL) in history. Judge M. Casey Rogers oversees the case, officially titled 3M Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 2885.
MDL saves the court and parties time and resources by consolidating a group of cases involving similar issues into one federal district, letting one judge make pre-trial decisions that apply to all parties. MDL also encourages settlement with "bellwether trials." Bellwether trials are cases specially chosen by the judge and parties to go to trial first because they represent the most common legal issues in the MDL and often lead to a global settlement. If the parties don't settle, individual cases are sent back to the court where they were originally filed for trial. 3M bellwether trials started in 2021. Here is a breakdown of the verdicts so far:
In April 2021, in the first 3M bellwether trial, the jury awarded $2.1 in punitive damages to each of three military veteran plaintiffs, on top of compensatory damages for medical bills, income loss, and related harm. Since a punitive damages award is meant to punish a defendant's outrageous misconduct, this first verdict was a clear blow to 3M. (See below for more on damages.)
In early June 2021, the second bellwether trial went 3M's way, with the jury deciding the company wasn't responsible for the plaintiff's hearing problems.
But just a few weeks later, the third bellwether jury threw the parties a curveball, finding 3M responsible for the plaintiff's tinnitus, but setting the company's fault at 62% and the plaintiff's at 38%. Because the plaintiff was found to be 38% at fault for his injuries, his damages were reduced from $1.7 million to $1.1 million based on comparative negligence rules.
In October 2021, the fourth bellwether trial ended with a verdict against 3M. Army veteran Brandon Adkins blamed 3M's faulty earplugs for his hearing loss and tinnitus and the Florida jury agreed, ordering 3M to pay $8.2 million in damages to Adkins. The jury decided that:
But, a few weeks later, the jury in the fifth bellwether trial found that 3M wasn't at fault for the plaintiff's hearing loss and tinnitus.
In what's now a pattern, the November bellwether trials sent mixed messages to 3M and MDL plaintiffs. The sixth trial was decided in 3M's favor, but just a few days later, the plaintiff in the seventh trial was awarded $13 million.
December started off great for 3M earplug plaintiffs. In the eighth bellwether trial, a jury awarded a U.S. Army veteran $22.5 million. The award included $15 million in punitive damages.
But, again, just a few days later, 3M won the ninth and 10th bellwether trial.
A federal jury awarded $110 million to two U.S. Army veterans who said 3M earplugs caused them to suffer hearing damage. The award in the 11th bellwether trial is the largest verdict yet to result from hundreds of thousands of lawsuits over the earplugs.
Federal juries in the 12th and 13th bellwether trials in the ongoing 3M litigation found in favor of the plaintiffs, awarding service members $8 million and $50 million respectively.
After three straight victories for service members, a bellwether trial ended with a verdict in favor of 3M in early April. The federal jury found that 3M earplugs weren't defective and that 3M hadn't concealed potential defects from users.
But just a few weeks later, a Florida jury awarded a U.S. Army veteran $2.2 million. The veteran alleged that 3M's combat earplugs failed to protect his hearing. 3M said it will appeal the verdict.
3M lost big in the 16th bellwether trial. A Florida jury awarded a U.S. Army veteran $77.5 million. The veteran argued that 3M's faulty earplugs caused him to develop tinnitus and noise-induced hearing loss. The award, which included $72.5 million in punitive damages, was the largest for an individual plaintiff. Previous juries have awarded between $1.7 million to $110 million, which came from a January 2022 verdict split between two plaintiffs. 3M, once again, vows to appeal the verdict.
After 16 bellwether trials, the tally is tilting toward the plaintiffs—10 verdicts for servicemembers to six for 3M. Juries have awarded nearly $300 million in damages to plaintiffs.
After 16 bellwether trials, the judge overseeing the 3M MDL ordered both sides to participate in settlement discussions. In her order, Judge Rodgers wrote that the bellwether trials have given the plaintiffs and 3M ample opportunity to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of various claims and defenses and get a sense of how juries are likely to respond to the evidence.
As of June 10, 2022, there were 233,883 plaintiffs in the MDL, down from nearly 300,000 in September 2021. Given the judicial resources necessary to handle this number of cases, Judge Rodgers decided it was appropriate to require the parties to make a serious and good-faith effort to resolve as many cases as possible before sending approximately 2,500 cases to each of the 94 districts nationwide for trial. Judge Rodgers appointed a special master to begin a multi-day mediation with a group of plaintiffs' attorneys and defense attorneys by July 15, 2022.
After learning about some of the bellwether jury awards, you might be asking: What are damages? How do juries come up with these numbers?
Damages are the legal term for compensation for a plaintiff's losses. Whether your case settles out of court or you win at trial, the money you get is called damages. Your damage award typically depends on:
Most damages are "compensatory damages" because they are meant to compensate plaintiffs for their losses. But judges and juries can also award punitive damages in some cases, including 3M earplug lawsuits. Punitive damages are meant to punish defendants for intentionally or recklessly endangering the safety of others. Punitive damages awards can be many times higher than compensatory damages.
Learn more about how much your 3M earplug lawsuit might be worth.
If you're a service member who is experiencing hearing loss or other injuries after using 3M earplugs, talk to a lawyer. A lawyer can answer your questions and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your case. A lawyer won't be able to predict the exact outcome of your potential lawsuit, but you'll get an idea of how long your lawsuit might take and how much your claim might be worth if you win.
Learn more about how to find the right attorney for your 3M earplug lawsuit. You can also connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.