3M to pay $6 billion to settle hearing loss lawsuits over military earplugs

Manufacturing giant 3M will pay $6 billion to resolve hundreds of thousands of claims filed by veterans who said the company’s earplugs failed to protect them from hearing loss while on duty, a company announcement said.

The payout resolves one of the largest mass wrongdoings in U.S. history. Plaintiffs said the earplugs made by the company were faulty and caused them to develop hearing loss or tinnitus, which is a continuous ringing or buzzing sound in the ears.

“This historic agreement represents a tremendous victory for the thousands of men and women who have served our country valiantly and returned home with life-changing hearing injuries,” lawyers representing the plaintiffs said in a joint statement.

According to Tuesday’s announcement, the company reached the settlement without admission of liability. The company said its earbuds are “safe and effective when used properly” and that it is prepared to continue defending itself through litigation “if certain terms of the settlement agreement are not met.”

The case stemmed from a 2016 whistleblower lawsuit filed on behalf of the US government alleging that the manufacturer knew its earbuds, called the CAEv2, were not as safe as it claimed. The US military bought the earplugs from 2003 to 2015, and in 2008 3M acquired the company that made the earplugs.

Last year, the acquired company Aearo filed for bankruptcy as a separate company and assumed responsibility for claims. But according to media reports, a judge has rejected the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing.

The case solves a new legal problem for 3M, a sprawling conglomerate that makes hundreds of products across dozens of industries. Its coatings and sealants are incorporated into numerous industrial supply chains, while the medical and orthodontic divisions make devices such as stethoscopes, as well as the molded crowns dentists use in root canals. The N95 and KN95 masks became ubiquitous during the coronavirus pandemic.

In June, 3M agreed to pay $10.4 billion over 13 years to fund public water suppliers that have detected perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, forever called chemicals because they do not break down in the environment. Thousands of plaintiffs alleged that chemicals in the company’s consumer products could cause cancer, impaired fertility, birth defects and other health problems. The company has admitted no liability in that settlement.

3M shares rose 5.2 percent on Monday after news of a possible settlement surfaced in the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News. According to the Journal, some analysts had expected the lawsuit to cost the company between $10 and $15 billion.

The settlement is payable over six years starting in 2023. It includes $5 billion in cash and $1 billion in stock.

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