A federal jury in Florida on Friday awarded $7.1 million in damages to three Army veterans, finding that 3M Co. failed to warn about design flaws in earplugs widely sold to the U.S. military that ultimately caused hearing loss.

The closely watched lawsuit is the first of thousands of complaints to go to trial, and it could set rules for the way other proceedings are handled. More than 230,000 service personnel have sued 3M, claiming that the Maplewood-based manufacturer knew its Combat Arms earplugs (CAEv2) were defective and yet sold them anyway without warnings.

"The evidence is clear: 3M knew their earplugs were defective, yet they allowed our service members to suffer these life-altering injuries," plaintiff attorneys said in a statement Friday. A second trial on the same claims is scheduled for later this month, and a third is slated for next month.

3M on Friday said it did not agree with the jury verdict and indicated it may appeal.

"We do not believe the plaintiffs met their burden of proving that the CAEv2 product was defectively or negligently designed or caused each plaintiff's purported injuries," it said in a statement. "While we are disappointed and disagree with today's verdicts, they are just the first step in this litigation. We believe there are multiple grounds for appeal."

U.S. soldiers used the earplugs for years in combat and in training missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and in the United States. 3M acquired the earplugs when it bought Aearo Technologies in 2008, and it stopped selling the product in 2015. It has argued that the product was properly designed, worked as intended and was not responsible for any hearing loss.

The dual-ended Combat Arms earplugs were designed with one side to block all noise and the other to let through voice commands but block other harmful loud sounds such as those emanating from explosives. Military members say that didn't happen.

During the trial, attorneys for the plaintiffs said they found evidence that Aearo Technologies knew years ago that one of the flaps in the earplug was too short and could create a fitting problem.

The military veterans argued that Aearo Technologies, and later 3M, failed to warn the military about the findings of its own lab and test results.

The floodgates of litigation regarding those allegations first opened in 2018, after 3M agreed to pay U.S. military branches $9.1 million to settle a whistleblower lawsuit.

That settlement, in which 3M did not admit guilt, opened the door for individual veterans to sue 3M. Lawsuits have since poured in from veterans across the country.

The U.S. District Court in Pensacola, Fla., is handling the multidistrict litigation. The trials and verdicts arising out of early cases are expected to help decide which of the thousands of other cases against 3M continue on to trial, settle or are dropped.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725