When Earplugs Are Faulty: The Inside Scoop of 3M’s Current Legal Battle


Sandeep Singh

(CW: War. The following information contains words or phrases that may trigger a traumatic response in some readers.)

Back in 2016, a company known as Moldex-Metric Inc. filed a whistleblower lawsuit on behalf of the Department of Defense. Moldex indicated that 3M, the government’s sole provider of CAEv2 (combat arms earplugs), had knowingly provided faulty hearing protection to the DoD for at least a decade.

In 2018, the Department of Justice and 3M reached a $9 million settlement under the False Claims Act. While this was a victory for the US Government, it failed to address the injuries acquired by hundreds of thousands of retired servicemen and women of the US Armed Forces.

There are over 200,000 active lawsuits, being managed under a federal court in Florida, in which the plaintiffs claim they developed hearing loss and/or tinnitus after using faulty earplugs manufactured by 3M. Ten cases have gone to trial with mixed results. The plaintiffs who won their cases received significant payouts after successfully arguing their cases.

Despite 3M winning 5 cases, the company has still not successfully proven they didn’t violate the False Claims Act. The 5 plaintiffs who were not awarded damages lost because they were not able to prove their hearing injuries were directly related to the faulty earplugs. This may bode well for those with pending lawsuits as plaintiffs have made pretty strong cases that their injuries would not have occurred had their hearing equipment provided adequate protection.

Soldiers deployed between 2002-2015 who used the faulty earplugs and subsequently developed hearing loss or tinnitus (persistent ringing in the ears) may be entitled to compensation. If you think you might qualify, reach out to a 3M litigation attorney for assistance in filing a suit.

Hearing Protection For Soldiers

Being able to hear is critical for soldiers. You can’t even be accepted into the military if you don’t pass the hearing test given as part of the standard screening process. In fact, soldiers undergo yearly hearing tests to determine fitness for duty. If a decline in hearing ability is detected, it is common practice for combat soldiers to be reassigned to non-active combat positions.

In its defense, the federal government wasn’t aware it was issuing faulty hearing protection to its soldiers and has since made improvements to the Hearing Conservation programs offered to active-duty soldiers and veterans. The first program was implemented in 1948 and by 2004, every member of the military was issued hearing protection as part of their standard equipment.

While many service members choose to use similar earplugs as those made by 3M, others still opt for plain foam. Hearing protection is advancing rapidly, though, and it won’t be long before smart, digital earplugs are standard protocol. Much like modern headphones, TCAPS, or Tactical Communication and Protective System earplugs offer noise cancelation while still allowing the wearer to communicate and hear as necessary for their job.

Noise exposure is one of the top occupational hazards faced by members of the military. When stationed in a combat zone, soldiers are often exposed to sounds greater than 140dB. That’s 55dB louder than “normal”, safe levels. For every 3dB increase in sound, the time it takes for permanent hearing damage to occur is reduced by 50%. With sounds as loud as 180dB, that means if you’re sitting next to or shooting a machine gun without protection, damage can occur in less than 30 seconds.

It’s no wonder the highest numbers of injury reports are related to hearing loss. And because being able to hear is a critical component for safety, it makes sense that the US Military would want its soldiers to have access to the safest hearing protection on the market.

TCAPS provide technological abilities that standard-issue ear plugs do not. They can dampen even the loudest of explosions, which can cause immediate deafness if your ears are not protected, while still allowing soldiers to communicate and hear even the faintest sounds, like voices or twigs snapping. Essentially, these earplugs adjust the volume automatically. The louder the noise, the lower the device will turn its volume. These earplugs can even tap into communication devices and operate using Bluetooth technology.

Many factors can lead to hearing loss and tinnitus, and noise exposure is the most common. For veterans and current active-duty service members, the number of injuries related to hearing has declined over the years but is still cited as the most commonly reported combat-related hazard. If you suffer from hearing loss or tinnitus, it can severely impact your quality of life. Thankfully, technology for hearing enhancement devices has also grown tremendously over the years.