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3M Agrees to $6 Billion Settlement Over U.S. Military Earplugs

By Natasha Bakirci, LLB, LLM | Last updated on

Chances are you've come across 3M and used one of their many products. Originally known as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, American multinational conglomerate 3M manufactures over 60,000 products under several brands, including adhesives, personal protective equipment, dental and orthodontic products, electrical and insulating materials, medical products, car-care products, electronic circuits, and healthcare software. They are also the makers of the ubiquitous Scotch tape and Post-It note.

It's their earplugs which have landed 3M in quite costly litigation recently. The Combat Arms earplugs were made by Aearo Technologies, a company 3M acquired in 2008. They were used by the U.S. military in training and combat from 2003 to 2015, including in Afghanistan and Iraq, in an effort to protect military service members from combat noise.

Hundreds of thousands of veterans and current service members have sued 3M, claiming that they experienced hearing loss or other serious injuries after using faulty earplugs made by the company.

3M Settles Without Admitting Liability

On August 28, 2023, 3M agreed to pay $6 billion to resolve roughly 300,000 lawsuits. Plaintiffs in the lawsuits claim that the company hid design flaws, fudged test results, and failed to provide instructions for the proper use of the earplugs, leading to hearing damage.

As well as individual testimony on the earplugs, a study published in 2019 backed up service members' concerns about the earplugs, finding that tinnitus rates increased significantly among active-duty service members from 2001 to 2015.

In a release, 3M said the agreement is "not an admission of liability." It further maintains that “the products at issue in this litigation are safe and effective when used properly. 3M is prepared to continue to defend itself in the litigation if certain agreed terms of the settlement agreement are not fulfilled".

The payout will come over several years and encompass $5 billion in cash and $1 billion in stock.

Attempts at Bankruptcy

3M previously tried to reduce its exposure to the earplug litigation, which had grown into the largest mass tort litigation in U.S. history, through bankruptcy court. At its height, the litigation accounted for about 30% of all federal court cases nationwide. Of 16 earplug cases that have gone to trial, 3M has lost 10, with about $265 million being awarded in total to 13 plaintiffs.

In 2022, Aearo filed for bankruptcy as a separate company, accepting responsibility for claims, but the filing was later dismissed in U.S. bankruptcy court. The bankruptcy judge considered that: "allowing an otherwise financially healthy debtor with no impending solvency issues (Aearo) to remain in bankruptcy, much less one whose liability for most of its debts is supported by an even more financially healthy, Fortune 500 multinational conglomerate (3M), exceeds the boundaries of the Court's limited jurisdiction."

This is not the first time 3M has been involved in a high-value settlement this year. In June 2023, the manufacturing giant agreed to pay $10.3 billion over 13 years, following complaints from U.S. public water suppliers that the toxic "forever chemicals" found in a wide array of 3M's products had contaminated their drinking water.

"Forever chemicals" are known to scientists as polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The plaintiffs here alleged that 3M actually knew that PFAS caused cancer, developmental defects, and a myriad of other health problems. 3M has announced that it will stop producing PFAS by the end of 2025.

On August 29, 3M secured preliminary approval for the $10.3 billion deal, less than a day after a group of 22 U.S. states and territories dropped their objections to the deal.

Corporations Take Note

Attorney Bryan Aylstock told Bloomberg and other news outlets that this historic earplug settlement is a “tremendous victory for the thousands of men and women who bravely served our country and returned home with life-altering hearing injuries."

It is hoped that this pricey litigation will impress upon the big international manufacturers the importance of ensuring that their products are fit for purpose and safe for their consumers to use.

Scientific advancement may well play a role in bolstering consumers' complaints, as they can prove the link between their injuries/afflictions and the products they relied on.

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