Hundreds of veterans are filing lawsuits against a government contractor that manufactured and sold defective combat earplugs to the military.
The earplugs didn’t maintain a tight seal and allowed dangerously loud sounds to slip through without the wearer knowing.
The lawsuits allege that Minnesota-based 3M Company designed the earplugs in a defective manner and failed to warn users of the defect or to provide proper instructions for their use, according to a copy of one lawsuit provided to Military Times.
The failure allegedly resulted in hearing loss, tinnitus and loss of balance in those who used 3M’s trademarked, dual-ended Combat Arms earplugs during their military service between 2003 and 2015.
The lawsuits were filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas — Waco Division.
One hundred lawsuits were filed by two Houston-based law firms: Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz and Bell, Rose & Cobos.
“Due to the widespread damage caused to veterans by 3M’s actions, these cases are just the tip of the iceberg of lawsuits that will be filed in order to hold 3M accountable,” Mo Aziz, one of the attorneys involved, said in a statement.
3M previously agreed to pay $9.1 million to resolve allegations that it knowingly sold its earplugs to the Defense Logistics Agency without disclosing defects that decreased the hearing protection, according to the Justice Department.
The allegations by the U.S. government were brought against 3M through the enforcement of the False Claims Act.
Although that case has been resolved, all claims within the settlement were allegations only, and there was no determination of liability, the Justice Department said.
That hasn’t stopped veterans from lining up to seek punitive damages from 3M after developing hearing issues from 3M’s “gross negligence,” according to the lawsuit copy.
“Since late 2003, 3M touted its Combat Arms earplugs as capable of allowing users to hear commands from friendly soldiers and approaching enemy combatants, unimpaired, in the same way as if they had nothing in their ears," the lawsuit reads.
The documents allege that 3M employees knew about the earplug defects as early as 2000.
Although testing conducted by 3M found that the earplugs were defective, the company falsified certification stating that the testing complied with military standards, according to the lawsuit.
“It is an absolute disgrace that 3M would purposefully provide defective equipment to U.S. service members, knowing that those service members would rely on that defective equipment in combat," Andrew Cobos, another attorney named in the lawsuit, said. “Their fraud resulted in lifelong injuries to America’s warriors. 3M’s actions cannot, and should not, be tolerated.”
In 2006, the U.S. government entered into a contract with 3M, in which the company supplied an estimated annual quantity of 15,000 earplug packages, with 50 pairs per package, at a guaranteed price of at least $9 million in sales for the year, the lawsuit states.
The earplugs were sold to the military until 2015, when 3M discontinued the product. However, the defective pairs were not recalled and thus are still likely used by soldiers and sold by other vendors, according to the lawsuit.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.