3M Combat Earplugs Lawsuits: History and Developments

3M is facing thousands of lawsuits filed by U.S. service members over potentially defective Dual-Ended Combat Arms earplugs.

By | Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney

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 A company called Aearo Technologies originally made these earplugs, before 3M acquired Aearo Technologies in 2008 and took over production.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.

How 3M Earplugs Are Supposed to Work

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 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, anxiety, depression, and heightened post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

Learn why diagnosis is crucial in a 3M earplug lawsuit.

False Claims Act Lawsuit Over 3M Combat Earplugs

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 said:

  • 3M knew the earplugs had a design defect
  • the earplugs were not properly tested, and
  • 3M misled users about the effectiveness of the earplugs on the packaging.

In July 2018, 3M settled with the U.S. Department of Justice, agreeing to pay $9.1 million without admitting any liability.

3M Combat Earplugs Lawsuit Updates

Starting in 2018, hundreds of thousands of service members have filed lawsuits against 3M and its subsidiary Aearo Technologies, 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 bellwether verdicts and other important developments so far:

October 2022: Court of Appeal Grants 3M's Petition to Review Bankruptcy Decision

3M was granted permission to use a quicker-than-normal process to appeal the federal bankruptcy judge's decision to allow tens of thousands of earplug lawsuits to proceed against 3M. Three judges for the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the matter is appropriate for immediate review because of the number of people affected by the decision.

In the meantime, hundreds of 3M plaintiffs filed a motion asking the trial court to clarify 3M's liability for injuries related to the earplugs. The plaintiffs want to stop 3M from arguing for the first time that it isn't fully and independently liable for the earplugs. As of October 2022, all 3M litigation is paused while the trial court decides if 3M can try to shield itself from liability after already appearing as the primary defendant in 16 different bellwether trials.

September 2022: Judge Overseeing MDL Orders 3M and Plaintiffs to Restart Settlement Talks

Judge Rodgers, the U.S. District Court judge overseeing the massive 3M MDL in Florida, ordered the company and plaintiffs to attend a multi-day mediation session. With over 220,000 military earplug cases marching forward toward trial, Judge Rodgers said the time "could not be riper" for a mediated settlement.

Stock Analysts have estimated 3M's total earplug liabilities could be in the tens of billions of dollars.

August 2022: Bankruptcy Court Denies 3M's Request to Halt Earplug Lawsuits

In a somewhat surprising move, a federal bankruptcy judge rejected 3M's request to pause tens of thousands of earplug lawsuits filed by service members against 3M. When 3M put its Aearo Technologies subsidiary into bankruptcy, earplug lawsuits involving Aearo were automatically stayed (suspended). 3M asked the court to extend the automatic stay to earplug cases pending against 3M, but the court said no.

The bankruptcy judge's decision will almost certainly be appealed. Settling the earplug cases in bankruptcy would be more efficient and less costly for 3M, but for now, the earplug lawsuits will move back to multi-district litigation in Florida.

July 2022: 3M Creates a $1 Billion Trust for Service Members

Aearo Technologies, the 3M unit that made 3M's combat earplugs, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. 3M says that putting the unit into bankruptcy is the fastest way to resolve the hundreds of thousands of 3M MDL claims.

3M plans to create a $1 billion trust that would pay service members who are suing over the earplugs. Johnson and Johnson used a similar legal strategy to resolve thousands of lawsuits filed over its Johnson's Baby Powder products.

3M is likely to face pressure to pay more than $1 billion. Lawyers for some 3M plaintiffs have already said that they will challenge the bankruptcy maneuver.

June 2022: Judge Orders Mandatory Mediation

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.

Given the judicial resources necessary to handle the 234,000 or so cases in the MDL, Judge Rodgers ordered the parties to make a serious and good-faith effort to resolve as many cases as possible before sending thousands of 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.

May 2022: Highest Ever Award for an Individual Plaintiff

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.

April 2022: 3M Wins and Loses Again

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.

March 2022: More Plaintiff Wins

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.

January 2022: Biggest Plaintiffs' Award Yet

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.

December 2021: Big Plaintiff's Award and Another Win for 3M

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.

November 2021: More Mixed Verdicts

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.

October 2021: Mixed Verdicts

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:

  • 3M's earplugs were defectively designed, and
  • 3M failed to warn service members about health risks associated with using the earplugs.

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.

June 2021: 3M Wins and Loses

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.

April 2021: Plaintiffs Win

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.)

"Damages" in a 3M Combat Earplugs Case

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:

  • the severity of your injury
  • your prognosis for recovery
  • your medical bills and your possible need for future medical treatment
  • your lost income and reduced future earnings, and
  • "pain and suffering" (physical and mental) caused by your injury.

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.

Talk to a 3M Earplug Lawyer

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.

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