Multinational conglomerate 3M is to pay out over £197 million ($250 million) to veterans and military service members for defective ear plugs.

The 3M Combat Arms Earplugs are at the centre of a larger, £4.7 billion ($6 billion) lawsuit, where more than 250,000 veterans and active service members said the earplugs caused hearing loss.

The earplug litigation represents the largest mass tort in U.S. legal history and highlights the level of damages awards that can be made when a jury determines a manufacture’s product is defective. Significantly, the manufacturer doesn’t have to be based in the US and could be a UK or European exporter of products to the USA that trigger a product liability claim. In January 2023, 3M disclosed it had spent £351 million ($466 million) on attorney’s fees at that stage.

The veterans accuse 3M and Aearo Technologies, a company acquired by 3M in 2008, of producing faulty earplugs that failed to protect their hearing from noise damage when they received them from the U.S. military, according to reports. 

Payments from 3M will be made to active service members and veterans by the end of January and the conglomerate said that since the settlement agreement was announced in August, “it has received strong and widespread support from claimants and the broader military community.”

Previously, 3M  said it will contribute the money between 2023 and 2029, with £3.9billion ( $5 billion) in cash and £787 million ( $1 billion) in 3M common stock.

Some people who used the ear plugs worked civilian industrial professions or used them while hunting or firing weapons at the shooting range. Others used them while in military service for firearms training, vehicle maintenance and use, working in noise-hazardous conditions, domestically or abroad.  Multiple people suffered hearing loss, tinnitus, and other hearing-related injuries.

In 2016, Moldex-Metric, Inc., a California-based competitor, filed a whistleblower lawsuit against 3M claiming that 3M had been selling defective earplugs, knowing that they did not meet the standards for protection required.

Hearing devices must undergo testing and abide by guidelines set by the American National Standards Institute, which requires a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) label that states the effectiveness of the device. The defendants allegedly used their own laboratory for testing and used “inappropriate testing procedures that substantially skew the results of the NRR labelling tests.”

The ear plug NRR was allegedly manipulated to 22 when testing showed that rating on each subject was 10.9.Aearo, 3M’s subsidiary, attempted to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy but it was dismissed by a judge in June, who determined the company was “financially healthy.

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