3M Company, the manufacturer recently tapped to make millions of masks for healthcare workers serving on the frontlines in the battle against COVID-19 (the novel coronavirus), is embroiled in a legal controversy over military earplugs that allegedly left thousands of U.S. service men and women unprotected on the battlefield.
From 2002 through 2015, the devices – Combat Arms Earplugs, Version 2 – were standard issue for all active duty personnel on combat deployments or participating in live-fire training exercises. Although the earplugs were developed by Aearo Technologies, Inc., the exclusive military contract became the responsibility of the 3M Company upon its acquisition of Aearo in 2008.
In July 2018, the 3M Company agreed to pay $9.1 million to settle a federal whistleblower lawsuit that alleged it had knowingly sold defective Combat Arms Earplugs, Version 2, to the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency in violation of that contract. Although the defects were apparent as early as 2000, the complaint asserted that 3M continued to make false claims about their product’s features for years after taking over Aearo Technologies.
In settling the whistleblower lawsuit, 3M did not admit liability and was not required to compensate any military veterans who may have been injured while using Combat Arms Earplugs, Version 2. As a result, the company is now facing more than 7,000 product liability lawsuits filed on behalf of former active duty personnel who assert the earplugs were responsible for their service-related hearing loss and tinnitus. The majority of Combat Arms Earplugs lawsuits are pending in a federal multidistrict litigation currently underway in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Florida.
Recently, the 3M Company was granted a $5 million contract to supply the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services with N95 respirators, a type of protective masks desperately needed by healthcare workers caring for patients with novel coronavirus. The Minnesota-based manufacturer has vowed to provide nearly 2 billion respirators over the next 12 months.
Last week, President Trump signed a federal stimulus bill aimed at buttressing the U.S. economy amid the unprecedented global pandemic. Among other things, the bill contained a provision protecting the manufactures of N95 respirators from personal injury lawsuits.
According to ABC News, the protection extends to claims of physical or mental injury, illness or disability as a result of problems with the design, development or manufacturing of the respirators. However, lawsuits could go forward if plaintiffs are able to show any defective masks were the result of a manufacturer’s intentional or criminal misconduct.