A contractor has agreed to pay $9.1 million to the U.S. government for selling defective earplugs issued to thousands of servicemembers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003 to 2015.
Known as "selective attenuation earplugs," 3M's Combat Arms earplugs would "loosen in the wearers ear, imperceptibly to the wearer and even trained audiologists visually observing a wearer, thereby permitting damaging sounds to enter the ear canal by traveling around outside of the earplug," according to the whistleblower lawsuit complaint, which was settled Thursday.
The earplugs were designed to be worn in two ways. The wearer could insert the plugs one way if they needed to hear speech and another way if they needed greater noise protection. The plugs looked like two inverted cones connected at each bottom by a stem.
The stem was too short, which did not allow the earplugs to go deep enough into the ear, the complaint stated.
The earplugs were originally manufactured by Aearo Technologies, which was acquired by 3M in 2008. Aearo was aware of the plug's defects as early as 2000, many years before it and 3M became the exclusive provider of selective attenuation earplugs to the military, according to the lawsuit.
The complaint alleged that 3M and Aearo Technologies manipulated test results to make it appear that the plugs met government standards.
"In addition to damages directly associated with the contractual cost of the earplugs," the complaint stated, "The United States has been damaged by the large and ongoing medical costs associated with treating veterans who likely suffered hearing damage and impairment as a result of the defective earplugs."
Tinnitus and hearing loss are the VA's two most prevalent service-related disabilities, with 1,610,911 and 1,084,069 cases annually, according to the 2016 Annual Benefits Report issued by the Veterans Benefits Administration.
The whistleblower lawsuit was brought by Moldex-Metric, Inc., a 3M competitor, in May 2016 under the False Claims Act. The act permits private parties to sue on behalf of the government in cases of fraud. As part of the settlement, Moldex-Metric will receive $1.9 million.
"Today's settlement will ensure that those who do business with the government know that their actions will not go unnoticed," said Frank Robey, director of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command's major procurement fraud unit. "Properly made safety equipment, for use by our (soldiers), is vital to our military's readiness. Our agents will respond robustly to protect the safety of our military."