Army Vet Sues 3M, Alleging Tinnitus from 'Defective' Earplugs

FILE -- A soldier puts on his earplugs as a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter approaches to take him and other competitors to Camp Roberts for the Unknown Distance Ruck March during the 2014 Best Warrior Competition on Oct. 21, 2014. (U.S. Army National Guard/Sgt. Ian M. Kummer)
FILE -- A soldier puts on his earplugs as a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter approaches to take him and other competitors to Camp Roberts for the Unknown Distance Ruck March during the 2014 Best Warrior Competition on Oct. 21, 2014. (U.S. Army National Guard/Sgt. Ian M. Kummer)

Months after popular manufacturer 3M reached a more than $9 million settlement to resolve allegations it supplied the U.S. military with defective earplugs, a former Army sergeant has filed his own lawsuit, claiming the gear left him with hearing damage and a constant ringing in his ears. His attorney says his complaint will likely be followed by hundreds more like it.

Scott Rowe, a combat veteran who deployed to Iraq from 2003 to 2004 as part of the 411th Military Police Company, filed the suit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in the Western District of Texas, Waco Division. He's seeking unspecified damages for permanent ear damage he alleges was sustained while using the dual-ended Combat Arms earplugs 3M provided to the military under contract.

"During my deployment, we were given earplugs ... we were told that these things were supposed to protect us," Rowe said during a Tuesday press conference hosted by the Abraham Watkins Law Firm in Houston. "We have a company here that lied, that took our well-being in jeopardy. Now everyday, I have to live with a high-pitched frequency in my ear that's deafening. I'm never at peace."

Despite the recent settlement, 3M continues to maintain its products were not defective.

"3M has a long history of serving the U.S. military," the company said in a statement released to Military.com. "We have sold and continue to sell thousands of products to help our troops and support their missions. Safety is a key component of what we do for the United States military, and 3M denies that Combat Arms Earplugs caused injuries."

According to the lawsuit, the earplugs were designed by the company Aearo Technologies, acquired by 3M in 2008. They were supplied to the military between 2003 and 2012 and boasted a multi-use design feature: If worn with one side facing in, they purported to block all sound like traditional earplugs; if worn with the other side in, they were supposed to block louder battlefield sounds while still allowing the user to hear verbal commands and other quieter sounds. However, the suit alleges they were made too short, causing them to loosen in the wearer's ear and allow damaging sounds to enter the ear canal.

While the earplugs could be manipulated to create a better fit, troops were not provided with manufacturer instructions stating that, the lawsuit said.

"I started noticing the buzzing in the ear when I returned back from overseas," Rowe said at the press conference. "When I came home, sitting on the couch, I could hear that pitched sound."

He said he suffered from headaches and dizziness due to the ringing in his ears. The lawsuit demands damages in amounts sufficient to cover past and future medical expenses; pain, suffering and mental anguish; and past and future wage loss due to the tinnitus.

The lawsuit comes shortly after documents filed under seal pertaining to military allegations against 3M were made public for the first time.

On July 26, 2018, 3M agreed to pay a $9.1 million settlement to resolve allegations that it had sold the earplugs to the U.S. military knowing they were defective. The U.S. government had alleged that 3M violated the False Claims Act in its contract for the earplugs.

"The Department of Justice is committed to protecting the men and women serving in the United States military from defective products and fraudulent conduct," Acting Assistant Attorney General Chad A. Readler of the department's Civil Division said in a statement at the time. "Government contractors who seek to profit at the expense of our military will face appropriate consequences."

Mo Aziz, an attorney for Rowe with Abraham Watkins, indicated that the government settlement may open the floodgates for military veterans to file their own lawsuits against 3M for personal injury suffered. Tinnitus is the number one claimed disability for veterans; it affects one in 10 Americans overall, but veterans are 30 percent more likely to have the condition, according to an assessment from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Figures from the Department of Veterans Affairs show 190,000 vets were diagnosed with tinnitus in 2016, and 103,000 received a hearing loss diagnosis.

"Hundreds or thousands of cases are going to follow," Aziz said.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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