It’s a little alarming to hear that a set of earplugs designed for combat situations actually amplifies noise when inserted in a certain position. The complaint for this class action claims that 3M Company, Inc.’s Combat Arms earplugs are defective and that 3M knew this when it applied for a contract with the US military.
The all current and former US military personnel who received and used Combat Arms earplugs.
The case is brought by US Marine Corps officer Sean Lynch. Over his nineteen years of service, he was given the 3M earplugs to protect his ears from “impulse noise” or weapons fire and ordinance explosions.
The earplugs were supposed to prevent damage to the soldiers’ hearing. They can be inserted two different ways. In the closed position (green end), they were supposed to offer protection from all sounds. In the open position (yellow end), they were supposed to reduce noise while still letting soldiers hear what the complaint calls “low-level sounds critical to mission safety such as voice commands or the footsteps of approaching enemies.”
Unfortunately, the earplugs could loosen while they were in the ear without the wearer knowing it. This would permit damaging sounds to enter the ear by going around the earplug. The complaint claims that the problem is that the stem of the earplug is too short, so that it eventually loosens the seal in their ear canal and exposes the wearer to dangerous levels of impulse noises.”
3M won its contract to supply the US military with the earplugs in 2003. It eventually became the only supplier of earplugs, until 2015, when the product was discontinued.
According to the complaint, 3M conducted testing before and after selling the earplugs to the military which showed the defect: the closed end of the earplugs was only half as effective as it should have been for reducing sound, and the open end actually amplified sound. The complaint says that 3M simply changed the fitting and insertion process to try to compensate and then retested the earplugs in the closed position. This boosted the earplugs’ noise rating.
How can the complaint be so sure about all this? It cites a suit filed under the False Claims Act in 2016 by Moldex-Metric, Inc., another maker of earplugs, which asks for penalties and damages for false statements on the earplugs by 3M. In July 2018, the Department of Defense said that 3M had agreed to pay $9.1 million to resolve the allegations against it.
This lawsuit asks for recovery on behalf of the soldiers who had to use the earplugs and who were not properly protected. Lynch, for example, has been diagnosed with tinnitus. His hearing is not good in large environments and is expected to get worse over time. The complaint claims that the earplugs were supposed to prevent this kind of hearing loss but did not do so.