When Staff Sgt. Benjamin Butler deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, he remembers the distinct green-and-yellow earplugs the Army issued to him as being uncomfortable and not blocking the sounds of aircraft and artillery the way they should have. He later developed premature hearing loss on one side and a ringing in his ears known as tinnitus.
Sgt. Butler, 31 years old, is among more than 200,000 service members and veterans who are suing 3M Co. , saying it knowingly sold defective earplugs that caused their hearing problems. The first trial, which combines the cases of three Army veterans, has opened in federal court in Pensacola, Fla., and is expected to last through April.
Minnesota-based 3M, which makes products ranging from N95 face masks to tape, said in a statement the earplugs weren’t defective. Its design reflected features the military requested, and the U.S. government not only had input in the products’ creation but also was responsible for training soldiers to use them, the company said.
The trial is one of three scheduled this year to give 3M and plaintiffs’ lawyers a sense of how jurors react to their competing narratives. If any trials end in large plaintiff awards, 3M could face building momentum and pressure to settle. A win in court by the company would likely extend the time before any resolution.
The service members blame 3M for hearing loss and tinnitus, alleging that the company knew for years that the second version of its Combat Arms Earplugs had a tendency to come loose and let in more sound than specified. They claim that 3M didn’t give the military adequate instructions on how to use the earplugs and that the technique to create a proper fit wasn’t intuitive.
Hearing loss is a chronic problem for military veterans. The Veterans Health Administration said it treated 444,796 veterans for hearing loss and 161,830 for tinnitus in the year ended in September.