Aearo Technologies’ Combat Arms earplugs were standard issue for U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The devices were hailed as groundbreaking technology that enabled soldiers to protect their hearing while still being able to hear commands amidst war zones.
Unfortunately, the earplugs allegedly failed on at least one of these capabilities—protecting users’ hearing. It was not long before military personnel began reporting hearing damage, ringing in their ears, and for some, permanent hearing loss. These are precisely the types of injuries these earplugs were designed to prevent.
Navy veteran Kevin Willhelm told the StarTribune he did not know about the defect, so he used the earplugs assuming they were protecting his hearing, and he now suffers constant ringing in his ears. This condition, called tinnitus, is one of the most common injuries associated with using the Combat Arms earplugs.
3M purchased Aearo in 2008, leaving the new owner with a big, messy legal battle. Lawsuits against 3M are building up to make this one of the largest mass torts ever played out in U.S. courts.
3M’s Dual-Ended Combat Arms earplugs have two ends: one yellow, one green. The green end was designed to block out as much noise as possible. The yellow end was designed to block out the sound of explosions and other intermittent, loud noises, while still enabling the user to hear voice commands.
The manufacturer conducted testing of the earplugs in-house, contrary to what is required of military solicitations, which indicate that tests should be performed by independent labs.
The government required test results showing a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) of 25-40 on the green end of the earplug. However, according to a claim filed by Anthony F. Ascanio against 3M, when tested, results showed an average NRR of only 10.9.
The government required an NRR rating on the yellow end of between 0 and 25, but the manufacturer’s tests indicated an NRR of -2. Effectively, this means when the yellow end was inserted into a soldier’s ear, sound was actually being amplified, not reduced—much like a hearing aid would do.
Misreporting Test Results
Beyond these technical failures, claims against 3M further allege that the manufacturer reported that the yellow end of the earplug tested at a 0-decibel rating to match the rating the government required. For the green end, they reported a 22 NRR, which testers were able to achieve after folding back the flanges of the yellow end when the green end was inserted,
The tests revealed that the earplugs were too short to block harmful sound. This literal shortcoming was addressed with a modification, in which users could lengthen the earplug in the ear by folding the flanges outward, thereby creating a tighter seal. Allegedly, the manufacturer did not feel compelled to share this design flaw with soldiers.
Today, the number of cases against 3M for its defective earplugs has reached over 200,000. In an earlier lawsuit (2016), a competing company call Modex-Metric sued 3M and Aearo with claims that by knowingly selling defective earplugs to the military, the companies had committed fraud against the U.S. government. The plaintiff alleged that 3M knew about the earplugs’ design flaw as far back as 2000. A Department of Justice press release revealed that in July 2018, 3M agreed to pay $9.1 million to settle this lawsuit.