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Defective Military Earplugs Resulted in Tinnitus Hearing Damage, Lawsuit Filed U.S. Army Reservist Alleges

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A U.S. Army Reservist has filed a product liability lawsuit against 3M Company, indicating defective military earplugs caused hearing damage, since they failed to properly seal the ear canal, leaving service members with inadequate protection.

Santos Martinez filed the complaint (PDF) in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida on September 9, alleging that 3M Combat Arms earplugs were unreasonably dangerous, and unfit for use by members of the U.S. armed forces during military service.

Martinez joined the reserve in 1977, and served until 2004, working as a motor transport operator. He was issued 3M Combat Arms earplugs from 2003 to 2004, and indicates that design defects resulted in his development of tinnitus, which involves a persistent ringing in the ears.

The 3M military 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.

Martinez’s lawsuit, and a growing number of similar complaints filed over the past year note that the manufacturer knew that their testing procedures for the earplugs were flawed, and that they were overstating the amount of protection they provided. This was because, in part, wearers would have to fold back the flanges of the unblocked end before putting them into their ears to reach the noise reduction ratio (NRR) of 22 claimed by the manufacturers. However, soldiers were never instructed to do that.

“Defendant’s standard fitting instructions state the wearer is to grasp the earplug by the stem and insert it into the ear canal,” the lawsuit states. “However, when inserted in this way, the Dual-ended Combat Arms earplugs have design defects that cause them to loosen in the wearer’s ear and not seal the ear canal from damaging noises. When the Dual-ended Combat Arms earplugs loosen, sound can travel around the earplug and directly enter the ear canal, as if the wearer had no hearing protection at all.”

In July 2018, 3M reached a $9.1 million 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 earplugs, the number of individual product liability 3M Combat Arms lawsuits pending in courts nationwide is expected to increase dramatically in the coming months.

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