3M is launching a $1 billion foundation for service workers who say their earplugs haven’t protected them from hearing loss

Amid thousands of lawsuits from US service members who said 3M earplugs failed to protect their hearing, the manufacturing giant announced it is providing $1 billion to a trust to settle the lawsuits — and that Aearo Technologies, the 3M unit that made the connectors, will voluntarily file for bankruptcy as part of the plan.

The announcement comes three years after service members began litigation alleging that 3M’s Combat Arms earbuds were faulty. Since then, 3M has won six earplug-related studies and lost in 10; Since the most recent case, which was decided in May, 13 plaintiffs have won nearly $300 million in judgments against the company. 3M has not paid in these cases, choosing instead to appeal the verdicts.

According to 3M, as of June 30, nearly 250,000 cases of earplugs were filed and pending.

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“We have concluded that 3M and Aearo Technologies will enable 3M and Aearo Technologies to take decisive action now to address these claims more efficiently and fairly than the current litigation,” said Mike Roman, 3M Chief Executive, in a statement.

The company previously stated that the product “is safe and effective to use when properly fitted and that 3M has provided instructions to the military on proper fitting and use.”

Lawyers representing military personnel called 3M’s move insufficient. “Reliance on the resolution of earplug claims is woefully underfunded and not the ‘efficient and fair resolution’ that 3M is desperate to claim,” said Christopher Seeger of Seeger Weiss LLP in a statement. “We expect to present several arguments in front of the bankruptcy court as to why this application should be denied.”

“3M believes every veteran’s hearing loss is worth less than $5,000,” plaintiff Joseph Sigmon said in a statement after learning of 3M’s $1 billion trust fund. “Would 3M CEO Mike Roman want to lose his hearing in exchange for $5,000? Our fight has only just begun, and 3M will regret taking on those who have served our nation and defended the values ​​that 3M treats with such contempt.”

NBC News shed light on the earplug cases in May through an interview with Sigmon, a former field artillery specialist who served on two Army deployments — Iraq in 2006 and Afghanistan in 2013. After Sigmon returned to North Carolina from the battlefield, he said he noticed one low and constant ringing in his ears; he was diagnosed with tinnitus. “I remember me and my buddies talking about the earbuds not working,” Sigmon told NBC News. “If you fired your rifle, you could still feel a pinprick in your ear.”

Joseph Sigmon served on two artillery tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and was recognized for his work training Afghan soldiers in the use of artillery.
Joseph Sigmon served on two artillery tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and was recognized for his work training Afghan soldiers in the use of artillery. Courtesy of Joseph Sigman

Military personnel are routinely exposed to noise levels of up to 150 decibels during training and combat, experts say.

The service workers’ lawsuits followed a settlement 3M reached with the Justice Department in 2018, alleging the company knowingly supplied the US military with defective earbuds because they were too short to properly fit all users. The government also claimed that 3M failed to disclose the design flaw to the military. 3M paid $9.1 million to settle the matter and admitted no wrongdoing.

3M bought Aeroro in 2008 for $1.2 billion. 3M’s slogan for Combat Arms earplugs sold to the US military was “You Protect Us.” We protect you.”

Aearo, which also manufactured other products, developed an initial version of the Combat Arms product in 1998. It had two sides: one end was intended to provide full hearing protection, while the other end allowed a user to hear nearby conversations.

a 3M Combat Arms earplug
Sigmon holds a 3M Combat Arms earplug.NBC News

Documents from the court cases show that Aearo tested the earbuds in early 2000 and found that they were too short to properly fit all users and could become detached. The company found that tampering with the plugs could provide a good fit, the documents show.

3M said Aearo had “clearly communicated this issue to the military.” However, the plaintiffs cite a 2019 testimony produced as part of the litigation, in which a scientist at 3M’s division who worked with the military on the earbuds said he had no “paper documentation” showing that the Military was informed of the earplug loosening issue.

In its fight against the earplug cases, 3M claimed that its status as a government contractor protected it from liability for military hearing loss. 3M’s attorneys acknowledged to NBC News that there was no traditional contract with the military for Combat Arms’ earbuds. Instead, the company argued that if there was an agreement between the government and a manufacturer that provided adequate detail about what the military wanted in a product, that was effectively a contract and protected the company from litigation in defense of the government contractor should be. Plaintiffs’ attorneys disagreed with this view.

Aearo Technologies filed its application with the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Indiana, which will oversee the case and the trust fund established by the company. 3M said it has also committed $240 million to fund anticipated costs related to the case, adding that it will “provide additional funds if required under the terms of the agreement.”

In a conference call with investors Tuesday morning, CEO Roman said, “We want to do what’s right for veterans.” But he also said 3M stands by the performance of the earbuds. 3M stock rose 6% after the news.

Courtney Kube and Didi Martinez contributed.

https://www.nbcnews.com/business/corporations/3m-creating-1-billion-trust-service-members-say-earplugs-didnt-protect-rcna40032 3M is launching a $1 billion foundation for service workers who say their earplugs haven’t protected them from hearing loss

Fry Electronics Team

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