A $22.5 million jury verdict against 3M is the largest penalty yet in a series of trials over allegedly defective earplugs manufactured by the Maplewood-based company.
A federal jury in Tallahassee, Fla., late last week ruled in favor of Theodore Finley, who served in the U.S. Army from 2006 to 2014. Finley alleged that he developed bilateral tinnitus and noise-induced hearing loss while wearing 3M-made earplugs as he worked around weapon fire, generators, mechanized vehicles, helicopters and during training and combat.
It was the eighth ruling in a series of bellwether trials against the company, and the fifth where the plaintiff prevailed. Three juries rejected all claims against 3M.
The trials are part of what may be the largest U.S. mass tort ever, with more than 250,000 veterans and military personnel alleging they suffered hearing loss while using the Combat Arms CAEv2 earplugs. The plaintiffs say 3M knew the earplugs were defective and that it failed to properly warn them of alleged flaws.
"This is ... the second jury in a row that found beyond a reasonable doubt that 3M's conduct was reprehensible and deserving of severe punishment," Bryan Aylstock, lead plaintiffs' attorney, said in a prepared statement. "We will ensure that 3M is held fully accountable for putting profits over the safety of those who served our nation."
3M stopped selling the earplugs in 2015 but has maintained the product was safe and effective.
"While we are disappointed in (the) verdict, we are only halfway through the bellwether process. Juries differ, each case must be proved on its individual facts, and our successes thus far illustrate the heavy burden plaintiffs must meet in proving the elements of their claims," 3M said in a statement in response to the latest court ruling.
The earplug lawsuits are part of a Pensacola-based multidistrict litigation case, used by federal courts in complex product liability matters with many separate claims of similarly acquired injuries. Bellwether trials are used commonly in such situations to set precedents and help guide possible settlements. Two more bellwether trials against 3M over its earplugs are still pending.
To date, the monetary judgments in the previous four cases that 3M lost totaled about $30 million. The Tallahassee jury on Friday awarded Finley $7.5 million in compensatory damages and $15 million in punitive damages, for a total of $22.5 million.
In 2008, 3M bought Aearo Technologies, making it a large player in the military earplug market. The claims began to emerge in 2018 after the company settled a government whistleblower lawsuit over the earplugs. That suit was brought by Moldex-Metric, a rival earplug maker, on behalf of the U.S. government following an inquiry by the Army Criminal Investigation Command.
The suit alleged that Aearo was aware of "dangerous design defects" in its earplugs as early as 2000. The Army's report concluded that if the government had known about tests run by Aearo in 2000, it might not have purchased Aearo earplugs.
3M paid a $9.1 million penalty to settle the whistleblower lawsuit, but denied all claims and did not admit liability.