The U.S. Department of Justice announced in July 2018 that Minnesota-based company 3M agreed to resolve allegations of knowingly selling dual-ended Combat Arms™ Earplugs, Version 2 to the U.S. military through a $9.1 million settlement. 3M and its predecessor company, Aearo Technologies, were allegedly aware of the earplug defects as early as 2000 yet continued selling the Combat Arms™ earplugs through 2015. In fact, 3M was the exclusive provider of selective attenuation ear plugs sold to the military.
Soldiers who were deployed between 2003 and 2015 were issued the 3M Combat Arms™ earplugs despite the fact that the dual-ended earplugs were too short for proper insertion. Because of this defect, the earplugs could loosen in the users’ ears, potentially resulting in serious, even permanent hearing loss or tinnitus. 3M and Aearo are also charged with manipulating test results to ensure their earplugs would meet government standards and they would be awarded the lucrative government earplug contract.
The 3M Combat Arms™ earplugs lawsuit was filed in a South Carolina federal court. The defective earplugs are dual-ended, which, in theory, means the earplugs can be used on one end as traditional earplugs, or flipped to the “open” positions, allowing explosion sounds to be attenuated, while still allowing quieter sounds to be heard. Unfortunately, as the Combat Arms™ earplugs loosened in the wearers’ ears, loud noises such as explosions and weapon fire were no longer being blocked out, resulting in hearing damage and tinnitus for many.
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Charges Made Under Whistleblower (qui tam) Provisions of the False Claims Act
The charges which resulted in the $9.1 million 3M settlement were brought by a whistleblower on behalf of the federal government. The False Claims Act allows private parties to sue on behalf of the federal government when fraud is alleged. The whistleblower in this particular case was Moldex-Metric, Inc., a competitor of 3M. In fact, 3M and Moldex have sued one another on more than one occasion in the past. In 2012, 3M alleged that the Moldex BattlePlugs earplugs infringed on 3M’s earplug patent. Moldex immediately countersued, charging 3M with making false allegations regarding their earplugs, which they claim pre-dated the 3M Combat Arms™ earplugs.
Moldex prevailed in the 2012 lawsuit, and the Moldex BattlePlugs earplugs are currently being purchased by the military. Moldex, as the whistleblower, was awarded $1.911 million for their whistleblower actions. According to Frank Robey, the director of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command’s major procurement fraud unit, properly made safety equipment is “vital to our military’s readiness.” Robey also stated his agents would continue to respond “robustly” to protect the safety of the military.
Hearing Loss One of the Most Common Afflictions Suffered by Active and Former Service Members
By some estimates, as many as 52 percent of all military personnel have from moderately severe to severe levels of hearing loss—as of 2014, nearly one million veterans were receiving disability compensation for hearing loss, while as many as 1.3 million were receiving compensation for buzzing in the ears or ringing in the ears—symptoms of tinnitus. The partial or total hearing loss experienced by soldiers can be the result of a single exposure to an intense sound (such as an explosion) or can be caused by continuous, long-term exposure (repeated gunfire, or the sounds in engine rooms or on aircraft carrier decks). Military personnel is constantly exposed to extremely high levels of noise, therefore, it should come as no surprise that noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus are common among veterans. According to AARP, the top service-related medical issue for military veterans is hearing injury, rather than missing limbs, traumatic brain injury, or even PTSD.
VA Disability Benefits for Hearing Loss and Tinnitus
Partial hearing loss, total hearing loss and tinnitus are serious medical issues which can lead to communication problems. In turn, these communication problems can lead to problems in relationships, social isolation, depression and even cognitive decline. Veterans who have been diagnosed with hearing loss or tinnitus could be eligible for service-connected disability compensation and may be eligible to file a Combat Arms™ earplugs lawsuit. Service members must have a current diagnosis of the hearing loss or tinnitus and must be able to point to a specific event(s) during their military service which caused or contributed to the hearing loss. This could allow the veteran to be eligible for VA hearing loss disability. The qualifying medical diagnosis results in a VA rating between 0 and 100 percent in increments of 10; this rating will determine the monthly disability compensation.
Statute of Limitations for a Combat Arms™ Earplugs Injury Lawsuit
The statutes of limitations govern the amount of time in which you have to file a personal injury lawsuit. These statutes vary from state to state and from situation to situation. In some cases, the statutes of limitations can offer a relatively narrow window of opportunity for soldiers who now suffer from hearing loss or tinnitus to recover losses associated with hearing loss and tinnitus which resulted from using Combat Arms™ earplugs. These time constraints make it extremely important to speak to a defective military earplugs attorney as quickly as possible.
Getting the Help You Need for Your Hearing Loss or Tinnitus Due to the Use of Combat Arms™ Earplugs
Trust is an essential element as it relates to consumer products, particularly those products provided to military members through government contracts. Those who believe they have suffered serious injury, including partial hearing loss, total hearing loss and tinnitus, as a result of using the defective Combat Arms™ earplugs could be eligible for a Combat Arms™ earplugs lawsuit. Service members who served between 2003 and 2015 then suffered hearing loss or tinnitus could now file a lawsuit related to the design defects associated with the Combat Arms™ earplugs.
The U.S. government has dealt with damages directly related to the contractual cost of the defective earplugs and will continue to be damaged by the ongoing medical costs associated with veterans who suffer hearing loss and tinnitus who are now seeking VA disability benefits. It is now time for veterans to be compensated by 3M and Aearo Technologies who may have knowingly supplied defective earplugs to service members.
If you suffered hearing loss or tinnitus as a result of defective Combat Arms™ earplugs, it is important that you speak to an experienced Martinson & Beason personal injury lawyer as quickly as possible. Contact us today for a free consultation.