The 3M company is nearing a historic $5.5 billion settlement over allegations that defective combat earplugs it sold to the U.S. military caused hearing damage in hundreds of thousands of service members. This massive payout aims to resolve over 300,000 lawsuits brought by veterans and active-duty personnel who claim 3M‘s Combat Arms Earplugs Version 2 (CAEv2) were inadequate protection against loud combat noises, resulting in hearing loss and tinnitus. But is this settlement enough to compensate for the lifelong disabilities many veterans now face?
I‘ll provide some background on these defective earplug allegations and why so many veterans sued 3M. I‘ll also share key details on the proposed settlement and how the money will be used. And I‘ll analyze whether critics are right that the settlement amount is unfairly low and lets 3M off easy.
Widespread Hearing Damage Linked to Defective 3M Earplugs
Before getting into the settlement itself, it‘s important to understand the scale of the health problems allegedly caused by these defective earplugs – and just how damaging that exposure can be.
Hearing loss and tinnitus are much more common in veterans exposed to combat noise compared to the general public. About 52% of combat arms veterans suffer noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus after leaving service according to VA data. That‘s compared to only 14% of adults nationwide with hearing trouble.
Why such a huge difference? Loud noises from things like explosives, artillery fire, and aircraft take a major toll. Sounds above 85 decibels can permanently damage hearing over time – and many combat noises exceed 140-185 decibels.
So proper hearing protection is crucial for anyone exposed to gunfire noises regularly. But the plaintiffs in these lawsuits say 3M‘s CAEv2 earplugs failed to provide that protection.
The design flaws allowed damaging loud sounds straight into the ear canal. This led to lifelong disabilities like:
Noise-induced hearing loss: Partial to complete deafness ranging from mild to profound. This worsens over time and can be socially isolating.
Tinnitus: Constant ringing, buzzing, or roaring in the ears disrupting sleep and concentration. This has driven some to suicide.
Hyperacusis: Over-sensitivity to noises causing pain and anxiety. Routine sounds like running water become unbearable.
These conditions have ended careers and ruined veterans‘ quality of life. So how exactly did the defective earplugs cause so much harm?
How Defective 3M Earplugs Allegedly Led to Hearing Damage
3M‘s Combat Arms Earplugs Version 2 (CAEv2) were standard issue for the U.S. military from 2003 to 2015. 3M advertised them as capable of blocking loud noises while allowing users to hear quieter sounds like voices.
But the plaintiffs in these lawsuits allege that testing showed two major defects that severely undermined their hearing protection:
1. Loose fit in ear canal. When inserted, the non-inserted end would slowly loosen and back out of the ear canal over time. This created gaps that allowed hazardous noise in, especially high-decibel impulse sounds.
2. Too short to fit properly. The CAEv2 stems were too short to fit securely into many users‘ ear canals. This also let in excessive noise causing gradual hearing damage.
Additionally, the service members allege 3M manipulated the earplugs during testing to hide these flaws, including:
Using lab personnel with smaller ear canals instead of soldiers for fittings
Not testing noise reduction with impulse sounds like gunshots
Falsifying test reports to claim adequate noise reduction meeting military standards
Despite knowing of the defects through internal testing, the plaintiffs say 3M sold millions of CAEv2 earplugs to the military from 2003 to 2015 without any warnings or disclosures of the risks.
The Human Toll: Plaintiff Stories of Preventable Harm
The allegations above make this seem like a straightforward product liability case. But behind the legalese are hundreds of thousands of veterans and active duty personnel suffering daily from largely preventable hearing loss.
Patrick Mackey, a retired tank crewman and cavalry scout, says his hearing deteriorated rapidly while using the CAEv2 earplugs starting in 2007. The constant ringing and buzzing in his ears kept him awake for days on end. His ears would ache from ordinary noises like the squeaking of brakes or rain hitting a window.
Patrick was forced to retire early, unable to tolerate everyday sounds that now caused him intense pain. He says simple pleasures like attending concerts or family dinners have been ruined:
"These earplugs impacted every aspect of my life…they took away my career, enjoyment of everyday moments, and ability to hear my own children laugh and play."
For Iraq War vet Brendan McGinnis, the defective earplugs resulted in complete hearing loss in his left ear. As an infantry squad leader, Brendan was exposed to IED explosions, machine gun fire, mortars, and other damaging noises.
After leaving the Army with hearing problems, those conditions accelerated – despite being just in his 20s. The isolation and difficulties of losing half his hearing have led to severe depression.
"I went from leading fellow soldiers in combat to struggling just to communicate with my family. It didn‘t have to be this way – if not for those defective 3M earplugs."
There are thousands of other veterans like Patrick and Brendan who served their country but now suffer from life-altering hearing damage.
Many enlisted straight out of high school, trusting that standard-issue military equipment wouldn‘t put them in harm‘s way. Now in their late 20s to late 30s, they face decades living with disabilities that limit their careers and health.
Next, let‘s look at the details of this settlement meant to provide some compensation and closure.
Key Details on the $5.5 Billion 3M Earplugs Settlement
In August 2022, 3M agreed to a tentative $5.5 billion settlement that would resolve over 300,000 claims related to the allegedly defective CAEv2 earplugs. Here are some key details on this proposed settlement:
Total settlement amount: $5.5 billion
Payout timeframe: over 20+ years
Recipients: Individual veterans and active duty personnel who sued 3M.
Use of funds: Compensate plaintiffs for hearing loss/tinnitus. Finance a hearing loss research program. Cover plaintiffs‘ legal fees.
Individual payouts: Will vary based on extent of injury from a few thousand dollars to over $100k.
Wrongdoing admission: 3M denies any wrongdoing under the settlement.
While a settlement this large seems substantial, it must be divided among over 300,000 claimants over two decades. Many argue 3M is getting off cheap for the harm caused.
But before it can take effect, the settlement must still be approved. Let‘s take a look at that process next.
Settlement Approval: What‘s Next in the Legal Process
Settling a mass litigation involving hundreds of thousands of claimants is a complex process with a few key steps still to go:
Settlement proposal: The two sides reached a settlement agreement after extensive negotiations.
Preliminary court approval: The federal judge overseeing the case preliminarily approved the proposal, which allows the settlement administration process to begin.
Notice to plaintiffs: All plaintiffs receive notices with the settlement details so they can decide whether to opt out before the final fairness hearing.
Fairness hearing: The court holds a hearing where any objectors can raise concerns about the settlement and plaintiffs can opt out.
Final approval: If found sufficiently fair, the judge gives final approval, at which point settlement payments can proceed. This expected in late 2022 or early 2023.
So the settlement isn‘t official yet. But 3M chose settlement as the path forward rather than further litigation – even if it cost them billions. Next, let‘s look at the plaintiffs‘ allegations of wrongdoing against 3M over these earplugs.
Plaintiffs‘ Allegations of 3M‘s Misconduct and Negligence
The veterans and service members allege that:
3M knew the CAEv2 earplugs were too short to fit most users properly based on internal testing.
The company knew the earplugs tended to loosen in the ear canals over time based on tests, undermining hearing protection.
3M then manipulated testing protocols intentionally to hide the earplugs‘ flaws from the military. This included:
Using lab personnel with smaller ear canals
Excluding typical combat impulse noises from testing
Adjusting test reports to claim adequate hearing protection
Despite this knowledge of the defects and testing manipulation, 3M sold millions of the earplugs to the military from 2003-2015.
At no point did the company warn the military or individual users of the earplugs‘ shortfalls and hearing risks.
The plaintiffs assert that if not for 3M‘s negligence and misconduct, hundreds of thousands of veterans could have avoided life-altering hearing loss and tinnitus.
Next, let‘s look at how 3M defends itself against these damning allegations.
3M‘s Defense Against Allegations of Deliberately Selling Defective Earplugs
3M denies any deliberate wrongdoing in designing, testing, or selling the CAEv2 earplugs. The company asserts that:
The earplugs were tested rigorously according to established protocols that were standard in the industry.
They continued improving the design throughout the product lifecycle.
The earplugs provided sufficient hearing protection when used properly as long as the user followed fitting instructions.
Any hearing injuries were likely the result of service members incorrectly fitting or wearing the earplugs.
The company was transparent in their testing and marketing materials shared with military procurement officials.
While not admitting liability, 3M decided reaching a massive settlement was preferable to continuing years of litigation. However, many military veterans question whether justice is served if 3M can evade accountability.
Is the Settlement Amount Fair Compensation for the Injured Vets?
Settlement supporters argue:
$5.5 billion is one of the largest settlements ever for a product defect case.
It‘s a reasonable outcome that provides compensation quickly without drawn-out litigation.
The settlement avoids further legal costs so more funds go to veterans in need.
Critics counter that:
Over 300,000 injured veterans will share the payout, so compensation based on extent of hearing loss may be low.
3M earned billions selling defective earplugs to the military. The company should pay a steeper price.
Without an admission of wrongdoing, 3M escapes accountability and justice is not served.
The average payout a veteran could expect is hard to determine without knowing the full injury extent across plaintiffs. But we can compare this settlement against other major cases:
Recent Major Settlements in Product Liability Cases
|Company||Product||Settlement Amount||Number of Claimants|
|3M||Combat Earplugs||$5.5 billion||Over 300,000|
|Volkswagen||Emissions Fraud||$15 billion||~500,000|
|BP||Gulf Oil Spill||$20 billion||Hundreds of thousands|
Given the prevalence of lifelong hearing loss, the 3M settlement amounts to ~$18,300 per claimant on average – far below the per-person amounts from NFL or VW cases.
The settlement may still be reasonable given the uncertainty of litigation. But without 3M admitting fault, many veterans are left feeling justice remains elusive.
The Lasting Impact of Defective Gear on Veterans
While the legal process runs its course, hundreds of thousands of veterans struggle with preventable hearing loss, unable to undo damage from defective earplugs issued to them while serving.
For young soldiers who enlisted straight out of high school in the 2000s, these disabilities take an immense physical, emotional, and financial toll. Many endure persistent tinnitus, pain from hyperacusis, and social isolation from profound hearing loss.
Promising careers in law enforcement, aviation, emergency response, and other fields are now off limits due to their conditions. But perhaps worst of all is the sense that their country failed to protect them from harm.
One hopes the mass litigation and historic settlement bring some measure of closure for aging veterans. But many will say any compensation is too little and too late. Because for them, justice remains elusive as long as 3M accepts no responsibility for freely selling defective gear to the U.S. Armed Forces.
The massive scale of this settlement indicates 3M likely knew it bore some fault. While the dollar amount is unprecedented, no compensation can undo the suffering of those who served. In that sense, the payout falls short of true justice or accountability. Still, with these earplug lawsuits now concluding, hopefully we can direct our focus to improving conditions for veterans living with lifelong hearing loss.