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A federal jury decided late last week that 3M Company should pay $7.1 million in damages to three veterans left with hearing loss from defective earplugs, and the U.S. District Judge presiding over hundreds of thousands of similar claims indicates the second in a series of “bellwether” trials will begin on May 17.
With more than 230,000 product liability claims pending throughout the federal court system, each involving claims that military service members were left with hearing damage from 3M Combat Arms earplugs, a series of representative cases were scheduled for early trial dates, to help the parties gauge how juries are likely to respond to similar evidence and testimony that will be presented throughout the claims.
The 3M military earplugs were standard issue for all service members between 2003 and 2015, featuring a dual-ended or reversible design, which was intended to block all sound when inserted one way, but provide selective filtering when reversed, reducing loud impulse sounds while allowing users to hear spoken commands. However, plaintiffs allege that 3M knew the earplugs were defective and failed to properly fit in the ear canal, placing a generation of military service members at risk of tinnitus, hearing loss and other ear damage.
Given common questions of fact and law raised in the claims, a federal multidistrict litigation (MDL) was established in the Northern District of Florida, where U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers has been presiding over coordinated discovery and proceedings.
The first trial started on March 29, and ended last week a massive win for the plaintiffs, including both compensatory and punitive damages designed to punish the manufacturer for recklessly disregarding the health and safety of users. While the verdict has no binding effect on other plaintiffs, it sends a harsh signal about the extent of liability the company may owe if hearing loss settlements are not reached to resolve claims.
Following a conference held on Monday, the court is continuing with plans for a second trial set to begin on May 17, and a third starting on June 7.
In a pretrial order (PDF) issued this week, Judge Rodgers indicates the 10 trial days have been allotted for the second trial, which will involve claims brought by Dustin McCombs. The Court also issued orders regarding juror questionnaires (PDF), the admissibility of certain scientific studies (PDF) and other pretrial matters.
Unlike the first trial, which involved a consolidated presentation of claims involving three veterans to one jury, the next two trials will each involve only one plaintiff. However, if 3M can not establish it can consistently defend the safety of its product at trial, it could drastically raise the amount the company will have to pay to resolve the litigation and avoid tens of thousands of individual trials in U.S. District Courts nationwide.
Given the large number of claims being presented, and the potential damages that the company may face before juries, any 3M earplug settlement is likely to become one of the largest in U.S. history, potentially exceeding the $10 billion Bayer agreed to pay last year to settle Roundup lawsuits.