Jury Awards $13M to U.S. Army Sergeant Left With Hearing Loss from Defective 3M Earplugs

Results of bellwether trials have been split, with plaintiffs winning four cases and 3M winning three.

With an increasing pace of 3M earplug lawsuits going before different federal juries, two trials ended over the past week with very different results, as the manufacturer secured a defense verdict in one case, but got hit with $13 million in damages in a separate claim involving a U.S. Army Sergeant left with permanent hearing loss.

3M Company faces more than 250,000 product liability lawsuits filed by veterans in recent years, each presenting similar allegations that defective earplugs were distributed to U.S. military service members between 2003 and 2015, which failed to properly seal the ear canal and caused permanent hearing damage or tinnitus.

The 3M Combat Arms version 2 earplugs featured a reversible design, which was supposed to block all sound when inserted one way, and provide selective filtering when reversed, to reduce loud impulse sounds will allowing users to hear spoken commands. However, lawsuits allege that the earplugs were defectively designed and commonly fell out of the ear, leaving military service members without ear protection.

Given common questions of fact and law raised in the claims, the federal litigation has been centralized before U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers in the Northern District of Florida, as part of an MDL, or multi-district litigation, where an administrative docket has been established for plaintiffs to present claims while the parties worked through common discovery that applied to all lawsuits and prepared groups of “bellwether” cases for early trial dates.

Judge Rodgers previously selected several groups of “bellwether” cases to be prepared for early trial dates in the MDL, to help the parties gauge how juries are likely to respond to certain evidence and testimony, which will be repeated throughout the litigation. Following delays during the COVID-19 pandemic, the initial bellwether trials began earlier this year, and continue to end with mixed results.

On Monday, the seventh bellwether trial concluded with a jury awarding active-duty U.S. Sergeant Guillermo Camarillorazo $816,395 in compensatory damages, and $12.2 million in punitive damages, making it the largest plaintiff victory in the litigation to date. However, that decision came shortly after a defense verdict on November 12 in the case of Joseph Palanki, who previously served in the U.S. Army and Army National Guard. Both men indicated they suffered hearing loss because of the defective 3M earplugs, which they say failed to work as designed.

So far in the bellwether trials, plaintiffs have won four cases and the manufacturer has successfully defended the safety of its product in three cases. However, when juries do find in favor of plaintiffs, they have been awarding massive verdicts against 3M Company, including punitive damages designed to punish the company, which will be difficult for the company to sustain as additional cases are set for trial.

In April 2021, the first bellwether trial ended in a $7.1 million verdict for three veterans whose claims went before the same trial. In June 2021, another bellwether case ended in a $1.7 million verdict, which was followed by an $8.2 million verdict in October.

While 3M has indicated it plans to appeal those verdicts, as well as the latest in favor of Sergeant Camarillorazo, even if the manufacturer is able to win a majority of the claims, if the average size of these bellwether verdicts is indicative of how other juries may respond, 3M may face hundreds of billions in damages after each of the 250,000 veterans gets their day in court.

Judge Rodgers has scheduled a simultaneous bellwether trials that are being handled by different judges. However, unless 3M Company establishes that they can consistently win at trial or starts negotiating earplug settlements, the pace of trials is expected to pick up if the court starts remanding individual claims back to U.S. District Courts nationwide and consolidates multiple plaintiffs into the same trial.

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