The 3M Company is one of the largest corporations in the United States. They manufacture and sell many popular consumer products, such as Scotch tape and Post-it Notes. They are also in the business of designing and selling worker safety products, such as hearing protection.
One such product 3M designed was a “dual-ended” earplug that was designed to provide the wearer with two different options for hearing protection. The olive green side was supposed to block all sounds – very much like traditional earplugs. The yellow side, on the other hand, was supposed to block, or significantly reduce loud sounds, while still allowing the wearer to hear quieter noises – such as communication.
Between 2003 and 2015, 3M contracted with the U.S. Military to provide it with version 2 of its Dual-Ended Combat Arms Ear Plugs. These earplugs became standard issued equipment for soldiers, particularly soldiers who were deployed to combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. 3M certified the U.S. Military that the earplugs were capable of protecting soldiers’ eardrums from gunfire and explosions, while still allowing them to communicate freely.
There is significant evidence that at the time 3M bid for and was awarded the contract to supply the U.S. Military with its dual-ended combat earplugs, 3M knew the earplugs had dangerous design defects that could cause soldiers significant hearing damage. Specifically, 3M knew that the earplugs had design defects that affected the ability of the earplug to achieve and maintain a tight seal in the wearer’s ear canal. The effect was that dangerous levels of sound could bypass the plug altogether, putting the soldier at serious risk for hearing damage.
Despite its knowledge of the defect, it is believed that 3M manipulated lab results and falsely certified to the U.S. Military that the product met all required hearing protection specifications. Allegations were brought against 3M under the False Claims Act that it committed fraud against the U.S government and did so at the expense of the military. In response, 3M agreed to pay $9.1 million to the U.S. Government to resolve the allegations that it knowingly sold the military defective earplugs.
Although the False Claims case has been resolved, the settlement does not provide for compensation for military personnel who suffered hearing damage as a result of the defective products.