A paltry settlement with the United States government has set the stage for one of the largest mass torts in United States history as hundreds of thousands of customers of 3M’s Combat Arms earplugs – most of them military veterans – seek to hold the company responsible for knowingly selling a defective product to the US government.
It wasn’t until a whistleblower came forward with information that the corporation had knowingly produced a faulty product that the problem came to light. Acting under the protections of the False Claims Act, the whistleblower told regulators that Combat Arms earplugs were defective in their design and were produced to be too short. As a result, they could not reliably form a seal in the wearer’s ear, thus leaving them exposed to sounds that could negatively impact their hearing and cause long term complications like tinnitus.
The revelation resulted in a $9.1 million fine for a company whose annual revenue exceeds $30 billion, and the government considered the case closed. The soldiers and servicemembers left to fend for themselves, however, were far from satisfied with the results.
Over 230,000 claims are now pending against 3M in a federal court in Pensacola, Florida. The first bellwether trial is currently underway and is expected to last through the month. Two additional trials are scheduled for subsequent months: the first in May and another in June. The 229,397 claims involved in the MDL make it the largest multidistrict litigation in US history.
The soldiers in the case understandably feel betrayed. “We had no choice but to use the 3M earplugs,” said one combat veteran in an interview with Reuters. “We trusted that our equipment would work.” The soldier added that he now has to sleep with a fan on to try to help mask the constant ringing in his ears and has failed to catch the sound of his children crying.
The MDL has the potential to cost 3M hundreds of millions of dollars, and perhaps even more if juries start to decide that 3M failed to protect soldiers, who put their lives on their line for their country.