Millions of military veterans across the United States suffer from service-related hearing loss and tinnitus, including tens of thousands who blame dual-ended earplugs supplied by the 3M Company for their torment.
“I feel like I am not part of the family,” retired Marine Farid Hotaki recently told Bloomberg News. “I should be able to tolerate a baby crying.”
Hotaki was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008. Like most active duty personnel who served in the U.S. military from 2003 through 2015, he was issued 3M Combat Arms Earplugs, Version 2 to protect his eardrums from the sound of gunfire, explosions, and other damaging concussive noises commonly encountered on the battlefield.
Hotaki learned of his hearing decline during a regular post-deployment audiogram. He hasn’t shared a bedroom with his wife in over a year because the ringing in his ears often makes him jump. He also frequently becomes frustrated with his three boys – one still a baby – because they are too loud.
“I feel like I am being a burden on the family. I feel like I am being the bad guy,” Hotaki continued. “They don’t understand, it’s not their fault.”
Hotaki is just one of more than 139,000 former active duty personnel who have filed, or who plan to file, lawsuits alleging 3M Combat Arms Earplugs, Version 2 failed to protect them on the battlefield. According to Bloomberg, the consolidated litigation underway in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Florida, is poised to become one of the largest mass torts in the country’s history.
Currently, more than 1.7 million veterans receive compensation for tinnitus and more than 1.1 million veterans get it for hearing loss.
Earplugs are considered essential equipment for military personnel serving in combat deployments or participating in live-fire training exercises. Veterans who spoke with Bloomberg indicated they were “inspectable” items, much like dog tags and military IDs.
Despite military earplugs being standard issue in every branch of the service, veterans are 30% more likely to suffer from hearing loss or tinnitus compared to the general population. According to the Veterans Administration, those who served after Sept. 11, 2001, are four times more likely to develop hearing problems.
3M Combat Arms Earplugs, Version 2, were developed by Aearo Technologies, Inc., which won an exclusive contract to supply military earplugs to the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency in 2002. The contract passed to the 3M Company when it acquired Aearo in 2008.
The dual-ended earplugs featured a reversible design. The green end blocked all sound, much like a traditional earplug. The yellow side ostensibly protected the eardrum from concussive noises, while allowing the wearer to hear spoken commands and other low-level sounds.
But Hotaki and other veterans pursuing 3M Combat Arms Earplugs lawsuits claim the devices were too short to fit certain individuals and failed to form a protective seal. They also assert that the earplugs’ manufacturers were aware of these defects as early as 2000, but manipulated test results and falsely certified that the Combat Arms Earplugs, Version 2 met all standards of the military contract.
In July 2018, the 3M Company entered into a $9.1 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice to resolve allegations that it knowingly sold defective Combat Arms Earplugs to the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency for over a decade. While those claims echo the allegations made by Hotaki and other veterans now suing 3M, the settlement agreement did not require the company to admit liability or compensate those who might have been harmed.
But Hotaki told Bloomberg he had “100% belief in these earplugs.”
“Whoever tested them out—they have to understand that it was wrong,” he continued. “I want some type of justice for it.”