Judge Reduces 3M Military Earplug Lawsuit Verdict to $21.7M, As 500 More Cases Identified For Trial Prep

Federal judge overseeing the 3M military earplug lawsuit maintained the plaintiff was still eligible substantial damages under Colorado caps due to the severity of his hearing loss.

The U.S. District Judge presiding over all federal 3M military earplug lawsuit has reduced a $55 million verdict returned in an early “bellwether” claim to $21.7 million, while identifying another group of 500 claims involving similar hearing loss and tinnitus problems that the parties will prepare for trial against the manufacturers of the ear protectors.

The verdict was returned in a claim filed by William Wayman, which was the tenth bellwether trial held in the U.S. federal court system, to help parties gauge how juries are likely to respond to certain evidence and testimony that may be repeated throughout more than 290,000 nearly identical lawsuits brought by U.S. military veterans left with ear damage caused by 3M Combat Arms earplugs, which were standard issue to all service members between 2003 and 2015.

Plaintiffs claim the 3M military earplugs were defective and too small to properly seal the ear canal, leaving military service members without adequate ear protection during training and deployment.

Wayman’s claims were weighed along with another veteran by a Florida jury in January, which awarded the two veterans a combined total of $110 million. Ultimately, 3M lost nine of the 15 bellwether jury trials over Combat Arms earplug problems, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

3M challenged the verdict and the amount of the damages awarded to Wayman, indicating that the jury wrongly included too much based on noneconomic damages caps in Colorado, where the lawsuit was originally filed.

While District Judge Casey Rodgers, who is overseeing consolidated Combat Arms earplug lawsuits in the Northern District of Florida, agreed with some aspects of 3M’s arguments in a May 24 court order (PDF), she determined Wayman’s hearing damage was severe enough to warrant a tripling of the $5 million he received in compensatory damages for his injuries, cutting most of the $40 million the jury awarded him in punitive damages.

She reduced the verdict down to a total of $21.7 million.

The high damages could be just a taste of things to come for 3M, which, without a hearing loss settlement agreement in place to resolve the cases, must face tens of thousands of trials involving veterans who suffered hearing damage while using its earplugs as standard military issue for years.

In a case management order (PDF) issued on May 23, Judge Rodgers identified a third “wave” of 500 cases that the parties must begin preparing for trial. Each wave has consisted of about the same number of claims, meaning that 3M is currently facing the possibility of 1,500 Combat Arms earplug trials that may be scheduled in the coming months and years.

Given the massive losses suffered in previous trials, the remand of these cases without resolution means 3M is likely to continue to face huge liability exposure as they go before juries. A recent Bloomberg News analysis highlighted the increasing concerns among 3M investors, which may increase pressure on the manufacturer to begin negotiation earplug settlements. Some estimates warn that resolving all pending Combat Arms lawsuits could cost the company as much as $185 billion.

With only about 2,000 civil jury trials typically held nationwide each year throughout the federal court system, it is likely that Courts will continue to combine large numbers of plaintiffs for consolidated trials to avoid taking decades to resolve the 3M earplug litigation.

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