3M has tentatively agreed to settle 300,000 lawsuits from US service members for $5.5 billion over claims it’s Aearo Technologies unit sold the military defective combat earplugs, causing hearing loss and tinnitus — a buzzing or hissing sensation in the ears. The deal would end years of negotiations related to the suits and avert a potentially much larger liability which some financial analysts predicted could be roughly $10 billion.
The Aearo earplugs were designed to protect users’ hearing from loud noises such as explosions but permit softer noises, like voices, to be heard. The earplugs, which the lawsuit claims were defective over a 12-year period starting in 2003, could be connected to a 15% annual raise of tinnitus claims lodged with the US Veterans Administration in 2012, according to legal documents. That year, there were 971,990 tinnitus claims reported. Allegations state that the earplugs were defective because they could loosen in a wearer’s ear and were too short to work effectively.
However, 3M contests the claims that its earplugs failed to protect veteran’s hearing from noise damage, stating that its earplugs work correctly when used with proper training.
In an attempt to give Aearo leverage in bankruptcy court to craft a settlement with the plaintiffs, the company filled chapter 11 with a pledge from 3M that it would pay for any settlement the company reached. The bankruptcy filing was dismissed in June, with presiding court judge Jeffery Graham stating that Aearo didn’t qualify for bankruptcy protections as long as it had 3M’s pledge to pay for a settlement. Aearo plans to appeal the ruling.
The failed bankruptcy strategy wasn’t the company’s first foray into earplug litigation. In 2018, after a whistleblower lawsuit, the company agreed to pay $9.1 million to settle civil allegations by the US Justice Department alleging that it knew and failed to disclose defects to the military. Additionally, the company has lost 10 of 16 early trials over the earplugs so far, with over $250 million awards to more than a dozen service members. In 2022, Army veteran James Beal was awarded $77.5 million in damages over his hearing loss and tinnitus in Florida. Beal tested weapons in the military over a four-year period starting in 2005. The hundreds of thousands of remaining lawsuits have been consolidated in a multi-district litigation before a federal judge in Florida.
Under the terms of the tentative settlement, 3M would pay out the money over five years. The company’s board of directors must sign off on the deal.
The tentative earplug settlement comes only months after 3M also settled for $10 billion in a class action case combining multiple cities claiming their drinking water was contaminated with PFAS from the company. PFAS are called forever chemicals because they don’t break down in the environment and are harmful to human health, including developmental defects, liver, kidney, testicular, breast, pancreas, and prostate cancer, adverse pregnancy outcomes, infertility, reduced bone density in children, and impacts on the thyroid and immune system. Exposure to PFOA and PFOS was also found to limit the effectiveness of common vaccines across multiple studies, MD+DI previously reported.
PFOS, a PFAS chemical exclusively made by 3M beginning in the 1940s, was a component in firefighting foams used by the military, airports, refineries, and fire departments for decades before it was phased out in the early 2000s, according to a previous MD+DI article. Additionally, the company agreed to pay as much as $12.5 billion to clean up drinking water supplies across the US that were tainted by PFAS.
Much like 3M’s earplugs, the PFAS litigation has also stretched over the last few years.
In December 2021, 3M and the City of Guin Water Works and Sewer Board in Guin, AL, reached an agreement to address PFAS in the area by contributing to the construction of a new drinking water treatment plant.
In July 2022, the Flemish Government and 3M Belgium agreed that 3M would invest more than €571 million to benefit the people of Flanders — a northern portion of Belgium — and carry out certain previously agreed-upon PFAS-related remedial actions. In August that same year, 3M issued a press release commenting on action taken by the Environmental Protection Agency regarding the manufacturing of PFOA and PFOS, stating that the company had “engaged in remediation at sites where it manufactured or disposed of these materials, and… acknowledged that more can be undertaken by other entities,” according to a previous MD+DI article.
Additionally, in September 2022, 3M settled with the Zimmerman et al lawsuit in Grand Rapids for $54 million.
3M pledged in 2022 that it would stop making and using the forever chemicals by the end of 2025. The company continues to face lawsuits from state attorney generals and person-injury claims over PFAS.