Some troops who have filed lawsuits over earplugs they say were defective may be in line for around $15,000 each as part of a $6 billion settlement with manufacturing conglomerate 3M, Task & Purpose has learned. 

Current and former service members have filed roughly 260,000 lawsuits claiming that the 3M earplugs that many U.S. service members were issued in Iraq and Afghanistan did not provide adequate protection.

As part of the settlement, 3M maintains that the plugs were “safe and effective when used properly.”

According to the settlement, claimants can either receive a lump sum up front or apply for an evaluation of their claim that could lead to a higher award. The exact amount for the lump sum award has yet to be determined.

“This historic agreement represents a tremendous victory for the thousands of men and women who bravely served our country and returned home with life-altering hearing injuries,” plaintiffs’ lead counsel Bryan F. Aylstock of Aylstock, Witkin, Kreis & Overholtz, PLLC and co-lead counsel Christopher A. Seeger of Seeger Weiss LLP, along with Clayton Clark of Clark, Love & Hutson, PLLC who jointly led the negotiating team said in a statement. “We are proud to have obtained this settlement, which ensures that those who suffered hearing damage will receive the justice and compensation they so rightly deserve.”

The earplugs were made by Aearo Technologies Inc., which 3M acquired in April 2008.  The U.S. government bought the earplugs between 2003 and 2015.

The massive litigation over the earplugs began after another company, Moldex-Metric, filed a whistleblower lawsuit in May 2016, alleging that 3M had sold the U.S. military earplugs that it knew were defective. Two years later, 3M agreed to pay the Justice Department $9.1 million to settle claims related to those whisteblower accusations.

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On Tuesday, 3M announced that it would pay $5 billion in cash and $1 billion in 3M common stock between 2023 and 2029 as part of the settlement. The agreement itself is “not an admission of liability,” a 3M news release says.

“The products at issue in this litigation are safe and effective when used properly,” the news release says. “3M is prepared to continue to defend itself in the litigation if certain agreed terms of the settlement agreement are not fulfilled.”

U.S. Army Pfc. Shane Roebuck, a Mortarman assigned to Bravo Troop, 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment (1-73 Cav), 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division fires a 120mm mortar on Fort Bragg, North Carolina, June 2, 2021. 1-73 Cav conducted mortar live fire exercises for combat training and recertification of their weapons systems. (U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Jacob Ward)
A soldier fires a 120mm mortar on Fort Bragg, North Carolina, June 2, 2021. (Spc. Jacob Ward/U.S. Army)

The exact amount of money that each of the plaintiffs will receive depends on how many decide to participate in the agreement, 3M spokesman Tim Post told Task & Purpose on Tuesday.

Anyone who has already filed a claim is eligible for the settlement, according to the settlement agreement. Others who believe they have a claim need to file their new claims promptly

Hearing problems are common among U.S. troops who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Global War on Terrorism battlefields in part because of their exposure to blasts from roadside bombs, aid Taren Sylvester, who researches military and veterans issues for the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, D.C.

“The explosions were much, much closer than they might have been in previous wars, and the rate of surviving these blast impacts is higher than in previous wars,” Sylvester told Task & Purpose. “So, you’re having people who are having both a greater exposure and a greater survivability, which in turn means that they are dealing with more issues longer term.”

Blasts from improvised explosive devices are also linked to the higher rates of Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI, among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, Sylvester said. TBI can make auditory processing more difficult.

Another reason why Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are facing hearing issues is that many of the battles in the earlier years of the Global War on Terrorism took place in urban environments, Sylvester said.

“In urban warfare, the sound can be amplified, just by the closeness of the buildings and make communications more difficult and audio processing more difficult than it would be in an open field situation,” Sylvester said.

As time goes on, Sylvester said, Global War on Terrorism veterans may develop hearing problems at higher rates than veterans of past wars. 

FILE PHOTO: A U.S. Marine fires an M777-A2 Howitzer in the early morning in Syria, June 3, 2017. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Matthew Callahan)
FILE PHOTO: A U.S. Marine fires an M777-A2 Howitzer in the early morning in Syria, June 3, 2017. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Matthew Callahan)

A 2017 study by the Chronic Effects of Neurotrauma Consortium that looked at more than 570,00 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans found that about 7.8% of the veterans had been diagnosed with hearing loss and 6.5% had been diagnosed with tinnitus, in which people hear a ringing, buzzing, or other sound.  Moreover, 6.2% of the veterans that took part in the study were diagnosed with both hearing loss and tinnitus.

In Fiscal Year 2022, more than 2.7 million veterans were receiving disability compensation for tinnitus and another 1.4 million were getting compensation for hearing loss from the VA, according to a Veterans Benefits Administration compensation report.

That makes tinnitus and hearing loss first and third respectively among the most prevalent service-connected disabilities for which veterans are receiving benefits, the report shows.

Being exposed to blasts also increases the likelihood that veterans will have a lower level of sound tolerance, so they can be overwhelmed by everyday sounds such as background noise in public places, according to the VA.

The issue of widespread hearing problems among Global War on Terrorism veterans is personal or Kaitlynne Yancy, director of policy and advocacy for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Yancy’s husband served in the Navy as an aviation electrician’s mate, working on the flightline, she said. Even though he used ear protection – including the 3M earplugs – he now has hearing issues.

“This lawsuit tells us a lot of things, that sometimes things that we thought were there for our protection weren’t as sound – forgive the pun – as we thought they were,” Yancy said. “I think what needs to come from this is that our government needs to ensure that the protective gear that they’re giving our service members is doing the job that it is supposed to do, because otherwise our service members are leaving the service with these injuries, like hearing loss.”

UPDATE: 08/29/2023; this story was updated with a statement from the lead plaintiff’s attorneys.

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