Thousands of servicemembers in the United States Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force may have claims related to hearing loss, auditory processing disorder (APD), or tinnitus (ringing in the ears) caused by defective earplugs sold to the Department of Defense. The claims stem from a False Claims Act lawsuit brought in May of 2016 against 3M Company by its competitor, Moldex-Metric, Inc., in which the Plaintiff claimed that 3M sold “dangerously defective dual-ended Combat Arms™ earplugs … to the U.S. military for more than a decade.” 3M has denied the allegations, but settled the False Claims Act suit in July of 2018 for $9.1 million.
In a 2012 press release, 3M described the specific earplugs involved in these claims as designed with “hear-through capabilities, which enable military personnel to hear low-level sounds, such as footsteps or spoken commands, while protecting against damaging impulse noise from explosions or firearms.” The earplugs were marketed to the military from 2003 to 2015 and were used by tens of thousands of men and women serving in the military.
According to the federal lawsuit, 3M employees were aware of defects in the Combat Arms™ earplugs as early as 2000, but nevertheless allowed the devices to be marketed to the federal government. The complaint alleges that “these earplugs have dangerous design defects that can cause them to loosen in the wearer’s ear, imperceptibly to the wearer and even trained audiologists visually observing a wearer, thereby permitting damaging sounds to enter the ear canal by traveling around the outside of the earplug while the user and/or audiologist incorrectly believes that the earplug is working as intended.”
Hearing loss has long been a pervasive problem for military veterans. According to a 2008 article in the American Journal of Public Health, one-third of Union Civil War veterans were diagnosed with damaged hearing. Over the years, the military discovered this injury not only harmed the individual servicemember, but also damaged the effectiveness of combat units as soldiers’ ability to discern commands was reduced. Thus the Department of Defense proved an eager customer when 3M offered its product for sale and, by 2004, issued combat-specific earplugs to all soldiers deploying in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, it appears the Combat Arms™ earplugs failed to provide the hearing protection to our men and women in uniform that had been promised.
Military personnel who used the 3M dual-ended Combat Arms™ earplugs and suffered hearing loss, auditory processing disorder (APD), or tinnitus may have a valid legal claim for damages against 3M Company. However, even in the federal settlement agreement, “3M expressly denies the allegations” that its earplugs were defective or caused damage to any servicemember’s hearing.
If you would like to consult with an attorney about a potential claim involving combat-related hearing loss, you may contact Graham L. Newman by submitting an online inquiry or (803) 929-3600. All consultations are free and confidential.
Graham L. Newman practices complex civil litigation with Chappell, Smith & Arden, P.A. in Columbia, South Carolina. He has represented numerous servicemembers—both active duty and retired—in a wide variety of civil matters.