The 3M Earplug Settlement: A Real Victory for Vets

A Marine with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, covers his ears
A Marine with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, covers his ears as others fire an M136 AT-4 rocket during rocket-battle drills, Aug. 24, 2011. (Tyler Reiriz/U.S. Marine Corps)

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When brave men and women from across the United States choose to put on a uniform and serve our country, they understand the innate risk they're taking. They put their lives on the line to fight for our freedom, and the devastating reality is that many veterans come home with life-altering injuries sustained in battle. Some do not make it home at all.

While getting injured during service is something all personnel know is a possibility, what no one considers is that the protective equipment provided by the U.S. military may not work as intended, and that the very thing that is supposed to keep service members safe won't.

From 1999 to 2015, 3M knowingly marketed and sold the dangerously defective Combat Arms Earplug (CAEv2) en masse to the United States military. The earplugs were supposed to protect the ears of service members by blocking out harmful combat noise. Effective earplugs were especially important during the war in Iraq, where much of the fighting occurred in urban environments that amplified sound, increasing the risk of hearing damage.

The defective earplugs caused hearing loss and tinnitus in hundreds of thousands of service members. Specifically, they would imperceptibly loosen within the ear, meaning troops were not aware that the device would move slightly out of place and no longer protect their hearing. 3M was allegedly aware of the defective nature of its product before they were sold to the military, but manipulated testing to produce results that falsely indicated the earplugs worked.

As general counsel for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and a veteran myself, I was proud to learn of the recent $6.01 billion settlement reached in the 3M earplug litigation. I wholeheartedly believe it's a momentous victory for the countless current and former service members who have suffered life-altering hearing injuries due to 3M's defective CAEv2. Totaling nearly half of 3M's worth, the settlement sends a strong signal that the safety of our service members can never be compromised.

The attorneys representing the veterans had to also consider that 3M's financial situation is precarious, as it currently suffers from significant debt and a plummeting stock value. Striking a balance between securing substantial value for vets and preventing 3M from facing a real bankruptcy brought on by too large a settlement, which would leave veterans with nothing, was paramount. The settlement achieves that balance.

Crucially, our veterans have received assurances from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that participating in this settlement will not result in the loss of health or disability benefits, nor will it adversely affect disability ratings. Additionally, VA facilities are barred from recovering any portion of a plaintiff's award as part of a medical lien. As the VFW's general counsel I was particularly concerned about this, and am very satisfied that the agreement guarantees awards will have no effect on VA benefits and can't be impacted by outstanding liens.

This settlement sends a powerful message to corporations: that they will be held accountable for concealing dangerous product defects, especially when these issues impact the well-being of our service members. All those who sued 3M should take advantage of the benefits provided under the agreement.

It is worth repeating the comments presiding Judge Casey M. Rodgers made at a recent case management conference, saying, "No one is in a better position or more credible position to evaluate this settlement than I am. And again, I say to all of you that the settlement is fair, and the settlement is smart."

At the VFW, we remain steadfastly committed to our mission to foster camaraderie among United States veterans of overseas conflicts; to serve our veterans, the military and our communities; and to advocate on behalf of all veterans. We are certain that this settlement agreement does just that.

-- John Muckelbauer serves as the general counsel of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. He spent more than 10 years in the United States Marine Corps and Marine Corp Reserve, serving from 1985 to 1996. Before leaving the Marines as a staff sergeant, he served as the company gunnery sergeant for Bravo Company, 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, and served in combat in Desert Storm with the 4th Marine Division.

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