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A landmark trial is underway in a Florida federal court, which could have a major impact on hundreds of thousands of 3M earplug lawsuits being pursued by military veterans left with permanent hearing loss, helping to gauge how juries are likely to respond to certain evidence and testimony that will be repeated throughout the litigation.
3M Company currently faces 230,000 product liability lawsuits over alleged defects with its Combat Arms military earplugs, which were standard issues for all service members between 2003 and 2015.
The earplugs featured 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, each of the plaintiffs raise similar allegations, claiming they now have permanent hearing damage or tinnitus after the 3M earplugs failed to provide the expected protection.
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 scheduled a series of early “bellwether” trials that are now underway.
The first trial started on March 29, and is expected to conclude the week of April 27, involving the combined presentation of claims by three veterans, each left with hearing loss after using the 3M earplugs. While the outcome of the trial will not have a binding effect on other plaintiffs, it is expected to send a strong signal and have a major impact on any 3M settlement negotiations if the company wants to avoid the need for hundreds of thousands of individual trials to be scheduled nationwide.
3M has already reached a $9 million settlement over the earplugs with the federal government, after the Justice Department brought charges of fraud over the same problem. However, it did so without admitting liability.
According to evidence presented at trial, the manufacturer knew about design problems which may cause the earplug to fall out of the ear canal, yet withheld safety warnings and information from the U.S. government and users. As a result, 3M could face punitive damages if the jury finds it appropriate to punish the company for gross negligence or reckless disregard for the health and safety of military service members.
Regardless of the outcome of the first trial, 3M will face additional cases already set to go before different juries on May 17, 2021 and June 7, 2021, each involving similar claims and allegations.
Unless 3M can establish that it can consistently defend the claims at trial, the manufacturer will face substantial pressure to resolve the claims, which many expect could be one of the largest mass tort settlements in U.S. history.