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According to allegations raised in a recently filed product liability lawsuit, 3M Company ignored warning signs that its Combat Arms earplugs could damage the hearing of military personnel as part of an effort to win and maintain lucrative government contracts.
Kevin Doyle filed the complaint (PDF) late last month in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, 3M Company and it’s Aearo Technologies LLC subsidiary knew or should have known that the military earplugs posed a substantial risk of harm to service members, but failed to provide warnings or instructions necessary to ensure the earplugs properly fit the ear.
According to the lawsuit, Doyle enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1993 and then later joined the army as a certified weapons instructor. He was provided standard issue dual-ended 3M Combat Arms earplugs for training and on deployment to the Middle East, but indicates that design defects with the earplugs caused him to suffer tinnitus and hearing loss.
The 3M earplugs were designed to serve as traditional earplugs when inserted one way, and provide filtering for certain noises when reversed. The manufacturer has maintained this was supposed to block loud noises, while letting the wearer hear spoken commands and other quiet sounds. However, a growing number of Combat Arms earplug lawsuits have been filed in recent months, alleging that 3M Company has known the product was defective for years.
Doyle and other plaintiffs say the manufacturers failed to adequately test the earplugs, and knew that the testing procedures were inadequate and that the noise ratings assigned to the earplugs were inaccurate.
“Based on the supposed technological design and qualities of the Combat Arms Earplugs, (Defendants won) a series of Indefinite-Quantity Contracts (ICQs) to be the exclusive supplier of selective attenuation earplugs to the U.S. military between 2003 and 2012,” Doyle’s lawsuit states. “To win these ICQs Defendants represented that the Combat Arms Earplugs would meet specific performance criteria established by the U.S. Government as a prerequisite for bidding on the IQC for earplugs.”
The lawsuit claims first Aearo, then later 3M, falsified test results to meet those requirements, then underbid competitors for the contract. This may have caused hearing damage to tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of U.S. military personnel as a result.
“Because the defect was imperceptible to the wearer, Defendants’ design defect went undetected for more than a decade by the U.S. military and those who wore them,” the lawsuit states. “It is thus not surprising that hearing damage is now the largest ongoing medical cost the military incurs each year.”
In July 2018, 3M reached a settlement over the Combat Arms earplug problems with the Department of Justice, resolving claims that it defrauded the government by knowingly selling the defective earplugs, and then by causing soldiers to suffer hearing loss whose health issues have to be addressed by the government.
As more U.S. military veterans learn that hearing loss and tinnitus may be the result of defective military ear plugs, the number of individual product liability 3M Combat Arms lawsuits pending in courts nationwide is expected to increase dramatically in the coming months.