Manufacturing giant 3M is establishing a $1 billion trust to settle lawsuits filed by thousands of U.S. troops and veterans over earplugs the service members said didn’t work, causing permanent hearing loss.
The company announced Tuesday that it was taking “decisive action,” even as it maintained that its dual-ended Combat Arms earplugs were effective and safe when used properly. In the announcement, 3M also said Aearo Technologies, the subsidiary that made the plugs, would file for bankruptcy.
Roughly 235,000 claims have been filed against 3M over the earplugs, and since 2019, 16 suits have gone to trial, with 3M winning six and losing 10. Plaintiffs in those cases collectively were awarded nearly $300 million, but they have not received payouts because 3M has appealed those verdicts.
The devices in question were 3M’s Combat Arms Earplugs, Version 2, issued to troops between 2003 and 2015. They were dual-ended, with one side that blocked out all sound and the other side designed to protect users from loud sounds such as gunfire or explosions while letting them hear speech and other softer noises.
The suits allege that the earplugs were too short for many users and the design had a flaw that allowed them to slip imperceptibly in the user’s ear, letting in damaging noise.
In 2018, the Justice Department charged 3M with knowingly supplying the Defense Department with earplugs that were too short to fit all service members and failing to disclose this information to the military services.
3M settled the case for $9.1 million but did not admit any wrongdoing.
In a press release issued Tuesday, 3M said the new trust would provide accelerated compensation to plaintiffs in a “manner that is more efficient and equitable to all parties.”
"We have great respect for the brave men and women who protect us, and remain committed to the military as an active partner and valued customer going forward," 3M Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Mike Roman said in the statement.
But attorneys who have represented the plaintiffs say the trust and related bankruptcy may actually slow down the settlement process and decrease the size of payouts. A statement issued by the Maryland-based firm Miller & Zois called the $1 billion an “insultingly low amount that would net each plaintiff a mere $5,000.”
“Right now, 3M is facing enormous pressure from the possibility of hundreds of trials next year. The bankruptcy stay will immediately relieve that pressure and give 3M more leverage in the negotiations,” read the statement from the firm, which represents hundreds of troops and veterans who have filed claims.
In 3M’s release and during a conference call with investors on Tuesday, Roman said the company stands by the earplugs, which he said “provided effective hearing protection when used properly.”
The decision for Aearo to declare bankruptcy and the establishment of the trust, Roman said, demonstrate that 3M is taking action to resolve claims.
“We want to do right by veterans,” Roman said during the investor call.
– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime