3M, a chemical and consumer product manufacturer, has agreed to pay $6 billion to settle more than 300,000 lawsuits from US service members who claimed they suffered hearing loss or other injuries after using faulty earplugs made by the company. The settlement, which consists of $5 billion in cash and $1 billion in 3M stock, will be paid over several years and covers claims against 3M and Aearo Technologies, a company that 3M acquired in 2008.
The earplugs, known as Combat Arms Earplugs Version 2 (CAEv2), were used by the US military in training and combat from 2003 to 2015. The plaintiffs alleged that the earplugs were defective and did not provide adequate protection from loud noises, such as gunfire and explosions. They also accused 3M of knowing about the defect and failing to disclose it to the military or to provide proper instructions on how to use the earplugs.
The settlement is one of the largest mass torts in US history and marks a resolution to a long-running legal battle that involved multiple trials and appeals. In a statement, 3M said that the settlement is “not an admission of liability” and that the company is “prepared to continue to defend itself in the litigation if certain agreed terms of the settlement agreement are not fulfilled.”
Earplugs allegedly caused hearing loss and tinnitus
According to the lawsuits, the CAEv2 earplugs were designed with two modes: one that blocked all sound and one that allowed users to hear commands and other low-level sounds while still protecting them from loud noises. However, the plaintiffs claimed that the earplugs were too short and did not fit properly in the ear canal, causing them to loosen and let in harmful sounds.
As a result, many service members said they suffered from hearing loss, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), or other auditory problems after using the earplugs. Some also reported experiencing headaches, dizziness, balance issues, or cognitive impairments. These injuries affected their quality of life, their ability to perform their duties, and their mental health.
The plaintiffs sought compensation for their medical expenses, pain and suffering, lost wages, and punitive damages. They also demanded that 3M provide them with free hearing aids and other devices to treat their hearing problems.
3M tried to limit its liability through bankruptcy case
3M faced a huge potential liability from the earplug lawsuits, as it was estimated that more than two million service members used the CAEv2 earplugs during the relevant period. The company tried to limit its exposure by filing a bankruptcy case for Aearo Technologies last year, arguing that Aearo was solely responsible for the design, testing, and marketing of the earplugs before 3M bought it.
However, this strategy backfired when a judge dismissed the bankruptcy case in July this year, saying that it was an abuse of the bankruptcy system. The judge found that Aearo was not insolvent or facing any imminent financial distress, and that 3M was using the bankruptcy case as a way to shield itself from liability and delay the litigation.
The judge also said that 3M had failed to show that it had acted in good faith when it acquired Aearo and assumed its liabilities. The judge noted that 3M had conducted extensive due diligence on Aearo before buying it and had known about the potential defect in the earplugs.
Settlement comes after another major payout by 3M
The earplug settlement is not the first time that 3M has agreed to pay a large sum of money to resolve legal claims related to its products. In June this year, the company said it would pay up to $10.3 billion over 13 years to fund public water suppliers in the US that have detected its toxic “forever chemicals” in their water sources.
The chemicals, known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), are used to make coatings that repel water, grease, and oil. They have been found in hundreds of household items, such as makeup and carpeting. However, they are also linked to cancer, developmental defects, and other health problems.
3M faced thousands of lawsuits from individuals, states, municipalities, and environmental groups that alleged that 3M knew about the dangers of PFAS and contaminated US drinking water systems with them. The settlement was part of a consent decree with several states that required 3M to stop producing PFAS by the end of 2025.