On March 28, 2019, the United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation will hear arguments from attorneys representing individual service members across the country and attorneys from 3M Company regarding whether claims against 3M for hearing loss injuries stemming from use of the earplugs during active duty should be consolidated for pretrial proceedings. In these lawsuits, service members claim the company defectively designed its earplugs such that they did not provide sufficient levels of hearing protection. Additionally, the lawsuits claim 3M misrepresented the effectiveness of its hearing protection devices to the military during the proposal process when seeking to procure a government contract to be the exclusive earplug provider to the military and thereafter. As a result, service members who used the earplugs allege incurring noise-induced tinnitus and hearing loss.
Background of 3M Combat Arms™ Earplug Litigation
Military service members in training, standard military operations, and especially those in combat, are often exposed to high intensity noise of various types. Between 2003 and 2015, Aero Technologies and 3M Company (who acquired Aero Technologies in 2008) sold millions of the Combat Arms™ earplugs to the military for use by service members in active combat and otherwise. The earplugs are non-liner, or selective attenuation earplugs; this means there are two sides to give soldiers two options for hearing reduction in one product. When worn on the olive-colored side, or the “closed” position, the earplugs were intended to block noise like a traditional earplug. When worn on the yellow side, the “open” position, the earplugs were intended to block or significantly reduce loud noises while allowing the user to hear lower level noises, like communications from commanding officers.
In May 2016, Moldex-Metric, Inc. filed a qui tam lawsuit against 3M Company alleging violations of the False Claims Act for representations it made to the United States about the hearing protection afforded by the Combat Arms™ earplugs. The qui tam action followed lawsuits both 3M and Moldex-Metric, Inc. had previously filed against each other; news reports indicate 3M sued Moldex-Metric, Inc. for earplug patent infringement and Moldex-Metric, Inc. countersued for fraud and failure of 3M’s earplugs to pass safety tests, in violation of its contracts with the military.
A qui tam lawsuit is a lawsuit brought by a private citizen – here, a competitor earplug manufacturer – that alleges false statements in the performance of contract with the government or in violation of government regulation. In other words, the lawsuits allege fraud on the government. Here, Moldex-Metric, Inc. alleged Aero Technologies designed the Combat Arms™ earplugs in a manner that was too short for correct insertion, resulting in loosening without recognition by the person wearing them – and that Aero Technologies knew about the product defect as early as 2000. The lawsuit maintained Aero Technologies/3M did not disclose this defect to the United States. Notably, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), tinnitus and hearing loss are the two most common health conditions among military veterans. The qui tam lawsuit cited sources quantifying VA service member hearing loss treatment at over $1 billion per year.
In a qui tam lawsuit, the government has the option to join the private citizen as a plaintiff in the lawsuit or to opt out and have the private citizen pursue the fraud claims on his or her own. In July 2018, the United States joined as a party and publicly announced a settlement with 3M. As part of the settlement, 3M paid $9.1 million to the United States “to resolve allegations that it knowingly sold the dual-ended Combat Arms Earplugs, Version 2 (CAEv2) to the United States military without disclosing defects that hampered the effectiveness of the hearing protection device.” The settlement resolved claims the U.S. government had against 3M; it did not resolve any claims of individual service members for injuries suffered as a result of 3M’s alleged false statements.
Following the announcement of the settlements and primarily starting in January 2019, individual service members who used the Combat Arms™ earplugs as instructed and suffered noise-induced hearing loss during their time in service began filing individual lawsuits against 3M. As of February 14, 2019, service members have filed over 150 lawsuits in various state and federal courts.
The United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation and the Case for Consolidation of 3M Combat Arms™ Earplug Lawsuits
Multidistrict litigation is a mechanism for increasing efficiency in the federal court system. Created through an Act of Congress in 1968, 28 U.S.C. 1407, the law allows for the transfer of civil actions involving common questions of fact to one federal district court for coordinated or consolidated pretrial proceedings. The efficiency in transferring cases to on federal court, or “centralization,” is accomplished through avoidance of discovery duplication, prevention of inconsistent pretrial rulings, and conserving resources of the parties, their attorneys, and the judiciary.
Attorneys representing one of the service member plaintiffs filed a motion seeking transfer of claims by U.S. military personnel and other wearers of the Combat Arms™ earplugs who suffered hearing-related injuries for coordinated proceedings on January 25, 2009. To transfer a case, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation must determine that the transfer will (1) be for the convenience of parties and witnesses; and (2) promote the just and efficient conduct of the related lawsuits. If the Judicial Panel determines a case should be centralized, they will also determine at the hearing which judge will handle the centralized proceedings. General opinion is in favor of consolidation, given the similarity of all of the claims asserted and the number of claims filed – as well as the scores of lawsuits expected to be filed in the future. The real question may be which judge is appointed to oversee centralization – suggestions have included judges in the District of Minnesota (where 3M headquarters is located), the Eastern District of Louisiana, and the Western District of Missouri.
Searcy, Denney, Scarola, Barnhart & Shipley, P.A. is currently investigating and handling cases of service members who suffered hearing loss and tinnitus injuries arising from use of the 3M Combat Arms™ earplugs.