Dating back to the year 2003, medical device manufacturer 3M Company was paid millions of dollars by the U.S. military to provide high-tech earplugs called the Combat Arms™ Earplugs Version 2 (CAEv2). The devices were designed to protect servicemen and women from hearing loss caused by proximity to explosions and damaging noise levels.
Despite this investment, more than 2.6 million veterans that have served in recent years produce been diagnosed with hearing loss and tinnitus, and as a result, are receiving disability compensation. Now the earplug maker has acknowledged that the plugs are defective and have agreed to pay the government $9.1 million.
News of the Combat Arms settlement has raised serious questions about 3M’s legal liability for the damages suffered by soldiers deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq between 2003 and 2015. Rather than the manufacturer coming forward to acknowledge a problem with their now-discontinued product, the issue was only called to the attention of the military when a whistleblower lawsuit was filed by 3M’s competitor, Moldex-Metric, which reported that the dual-ended design boasted by 3M did not work. Not only did it fail to provide protection, but the service men and women’s reliance on the product likely led to significant problems for millions of veterans.
3M’s CAEv2 Earplugs Promised Dual Benefits
When the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency ordered the defective CAEv2 Earplugs for use in the field, they did so based on the promise that the dual-ended design provided both traditional earplugs and the option of flipping them over to protect the wearer’s eardrums from the damaging impact of nearby gunfire and explosions while still allowing the wearer to hear normally.
However, according to information filed by Moldex-Metric in a South Carolina federal court, the device’s design precluded proper insertion, allowing them to become loose and eliminating the promised benefit. Making matters worse, the whistleblower complaint accuses 3M and its predecessor, Aearo Technologies, of having known of the defective product design years before the product was released.
The manufacturer agreed to the $9.1 million settlement with the government without having admitted to any wrongdoing, but it is unlikely that the legal issues will end there. Veterans who served and were issued the defective earplugs are likely to pursue legal action against the company, seeking compensation for their hearing loss, chronic tinnitus, or both. Though U.S. veterans are not able to hold the government liable for service-related disabilities, they can pursue third-party lawsuits against government contractors.
“As of 2017, there were over 1.6 million veterans with service-connected tinnitus,” said James Henry, a research career scientist at VA Portland Healthcare System. “Around 80 percent might ignore it, whereas the other 20 percent are irritated to the point that they need clinical services.”
The “dangerously defective” earplugs incurred not only millions of dollars in losses for defective military equipment but “enormous” indirect costs from treating hearing damage in affected veterans.
While there are several risk factors for hearing loss that may not be avoidable, holding faulty earplug manufacturers accountable is a step in the right direction to protect active service members from fraudulent conduct.