About twenty San Antonio veterans filed suit against 3M, maker of worker safety and healthcare products. The veterans said they suffered hearing damage during their service because of faulty earplugs made by the company. On Thursday, their attorneys announced the case on the steps of the John H. Wood, Jr. Federal Courthouse.
Between 2003 and 2015, 3M was the exclusive supplier of earplugs to the Department of Defense. The lawsuit, filed in the Western District of Texas San Antonio Division, claims that the dual-ended Combat Arms earplugs didn’t maintain a tight seal with the wearer’s ears, allowing high-decibel sounds through.
Attorneys for the veterans argue that the 3M company knew their product was faulty as early as 2000, but withheld the information.
TJ Mayes, spokesperson for the law firm Phipps Deacon Purnell PLLC, said 3M had been grossly negligent.
“For years, 3M knew that the earplugs didn't work, that the earplugs didn't meet Pentagon specifications, but they never disclosed that fact to the U.S. military. Thousands and thousands … of soldiers were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, all over the world, using earplugs that 3M knew were defective.”
The lawsuit alleges that although 3M’s own testing found the earplugs to be defective, the company falsified certification that the testing complied with military standards.
Bexar County resident and plaintiff Army Staff Sgt. Joe Contreras wore the earplugs at Fort Hood and while deployed. He said he developed tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ears, as result. Medical experts say tinnitus can cause severe distraction, undermining relationships and job performance.
“I deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan for a total of three years,” Contreras explained. We wore these earplugs, and I believe that my tinnitus and my hearing loss is a direct reflection of those defective earplugs.”
Contreras now uses hearing aids. He encouraged other service members to assert their injuries and join in litigation.
“I hope that other soldiers out there — Marines, Sailors, Airmen — will also come forward and be a part of this litigation. Because companies like this shouldn't be taking advantage of us.”
3M discontinued its Combat Arms earplugs in 2015. However, the defective pairs were not recalled and may still be in used by soldiers, according to the lawsuit.
In 2018, 3M paid the Department of Justice $9.1 million to settle False Claims Act allegations. However, the company did not admit wrongdoing and none of the settlement money went to compensate troops for their injuries.
Individual service members around the country are now seeking damages. Similar lawsuits are pending in 21 other states.
Later this month, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation will decide whether those actions should be centralized in one court, and if so, which court is best suited to oversee the litigation.
Carson Frame can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @carson_frame