U.S. veterans have filed at least 11 lawsuits this month — including four in Minnesota — accusing 3M of knowingly selling thousands of defective earplugs to the military for use in combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan or training exercises in the United States.
3M, without admitting guilt, agreed six months ago to pay military branches $9.1 million to settle the government's allegations that the Maplewood-based company supplied defective earplugs, the Department of Justice said at the time.
The soldiers who filed the lawsuits said they now suffer permanent hearing loss or tinnitus as a result of 3M's defective products.
3M declined to discuss the cases, saying it doesn't comment on pending litigation.
"I can tell you that there will be more filings," said attorney Muhammad S. Aziz. "I think this will go into thousands and thousands of cases. There is a lot of interest in this case by veterans."
Aziz filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Waco, Texas, last week on behalf of Scott Rowe, an Army combat veteran who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.
Of the Minnesota lawsuits to date, three were filed in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. The fourth was filed in Hennepin County District Court. Cases also were filed in California, Oklahoma and Texas.
Army veteran Kevin Cronin lives in Washington state and told the Star Tribune that his attorney is filing his lawsuit any day now. He said he was required to wear 3M's Combat Arms Earplugs.
"I served active duty Army from 2012 to 2015 and deployed to Afghanistan in 2014. I went into the military with great hearing and left active duty with drastic hearing loss and tinnitus," said Cronin, who now wears hearing aids.
Attorneys who filed suit on behalf of clients said they have been contacted by hundreds of veterans who have been diagnosed with hearing-related medical conditions. They all used Combat earplugs during either combat or military training exercises from 2003 to 2015.
3M acquired the products when it bought Aearo Technologies in 2008 for $1.2 billion. The lawsuits argue that 3M assumed all of Aearo's liabilities as part of the acquisition deal.
Several plaintiffs have asked the U.S. District Court in Minneapolis to grant a "multidistrict litigation" (MDL) pretrial review of the cases. If that request is granted, one case would be selected as the bellwether case that would be reviewed during one trial. The outcome of that trial would then establish basic protocols for how remaining lawsuits would be handled.
Other attorneys said they will pursue class-action status for the suits.
The lawsuits allege that the first defect was discovered in 2000 but that Aearo falsified test results so the products continued to be sold to the military for more than a decade.
The Combat earplugs were advertised as being dual-ended, meaning if you inserted one end in the ears you blocked out all noise. But if you inserted the other end, instead, you were protected from loud blasts but could still hear commands, conversations and certain noises.
The lawsuits allege that the earplugs not only had a flange that loosened but also were not long enough to fully protect the ear from loud noises such as explosions, shelling and other gunfire.
The lawsuits claim that many service members suffered permanent hearing loss, tinnitus and sometimes pain as a result and must now wear hearing aids and receive regular medical treatments by U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs physicians.
Claims that the 3M/Aearo earplugs were defective first surfaced during a sealed 2016 federal whistleblower lawsuit filed against 3M by the competing earplug maker Moldex-Metric Inc. Those claims resulted in the $9.1 million settlement last summer.
The lawsuits now being filed represent individual claims that tie into the same allegations made in the Moldex-Metric case.
William Sieben — a Minneapolis attorney representing several former military members — said he expects the number of plaintiffs to swell into the thousands and for the cases to eventually be considered for class-action status by the courts.
One of Sieben's clients, former Marine John Ciaccio of South Carolina, has already filed a request in federal court asking for his and seven other cases to be reviewed together under multidistrict litigation.
Sieben's client Tim Cerula, a Marine and West Virginia native deployed to Iraq in 2005, said in his lawsuit filed in Hennepin County District Court that 3M and Aearo had the chance to fix their product but didn't.
Sieben said his clients and many other vets are mad.
"These are sophisticated clients who know where they were trained, what they were exposed to and what hearing protection they were given by the military," Sieben said. "And they know where their deployments were. They have a good knowledge about their exposure."
While 3M would not discuss specific cases, 3M spokeswoman Fanna Haile-Selassie said 3M "has great respect for the brave men and women who protect us around the world. We have a long history of serving the U.S. military, and we continue to sell products, including safety products, to help our troops and support their missions."
3M discontinued making the dual-action Combat earplugs in 2015. As a result, no current products are involved in the lawsuit, Haile-Selassie said.
Details of each lawsuit differ slightly, but the key allegations are the same: that Aearo knew its Combat earplugs were defective. The suits further claim that Aearo deliberately falsified the company's internal noise reduction rating (NRR) test results and continued selling the earplugs to the military anyway.