Sat | Dec 9, 2023

3M agrees to pay US$6b to settle earplug lawsuits

Published:Wednesday | August 30, 2023 | 12:07 AM
The logo for 3M appears on a screen above the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange on October 24, 2017.
The logo for 3M appears on a screen above the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange on October 24, 2017.

Chemical and consumer product manufacturer 3M has agreed to pay US$6 billion to settle numerous lawsuits from US service members who say they experienced hearing loss or other serious injuries after using faulty earplugs made by the company.

The settlement, consisting of US$5 billion in cash and US$1 billion in 3M stock, will be made in payments that will run through 2029. The agreement announced by the Minnesota company on Tuesday marks a resolution to one of the largest mass torts in United States history.

Hundreds of thousands of veterans and current service members have reportedly sued 3M and Aearo Technologies, a company that 3M acquired in 2008, over their Combat Arms Earplug products. The service members alleged that a defective design allowed the products – which were intended to protect ears from close range firearms and other loud noises – to loosen slightly and allow hearing damage, according to Aylstock, Witkin, Kreis, & Overholtz PLLC, one of the law firms representing plaintiffs.

In an online summary about the Combat Arms Earplug litigation, the Florida-based law firm notes that 3M previously agreed to pay US$9.1 million to settle a lawsuit on behalf of the government alleging the company knowingly supplied defective earplugs to the US military. And since 2019, the firm added, 3M has lost 10 of 16 cases that have gone to trial – awarding millions of dollars to plaintiffs to date.

Tuesday’s agreement “represents a tremendous victory for the thousands of men and women who bravely served our country and returned home with life-altering hearing injuries,” attorneys representing the plaintiffs said in a joint statement. “We are proud to have obtained this settlement, which ensures that those who suffered hearing damage will receive the justice and compensation they so rightly deserve.”

In Tuesday’s announcement, 3M maintained that the agreement – which includes all claims in Florida’s multi-district litigation, coordinated state court action in Minnesota, and potential future claims – was not an admission of liability.

“The products at issue in this litigation are safe and effective when used properly,” the company wrote. “3M is prepared to continue to defend itself in the litigation if certain agreed terms of the settlement agreement are not fulfilled.”

3M has previously tried to reduce exposure to the earplug litigation through bankruptcy court, the Wall Street Journal reported. In 2022, Aearo filed for bankruptcy as a separate company, accepting responsibility for claims, but the filing was later dismissed in US bankruptcy court.

Beyond the earplug litigation, 3M in June agreed to pay at least US$10.3 billion to settle lawsuits over contamination of many US public drinking water systems with potentially harmful compounds. The deal would compensate water providers for pollution with per- and polyfluorinated substances, also known as “forever chemicals”.

The agreement hasn’t been finalised yet, and the settlement payment could reach as high as US$12.5 billion. Last month, 22 attorneys general urged a federal court to reject the proposed settlement, saying it let 3M off too easily – arguing that the deal doesn’t give individual water suppliers enough time to determine how much money they would get and, in some cases, could shift liability from the company to providers.

On Tuesday, New York Attorney General Letitia James said that 3M agreed to make significant changes to the settlement terms – which, as reflected in a proposed court order, include extending the deadline for eligible water systems to review the settlement and removing uncapped indemnity in favour of 3M. James, along with the other attorneys general, have now withdrawn their opposition, her office said Tuesday.

Still, five attorneys general will also be filing an amicus letter expressing concerns of the amount and timeline of the settlement payment, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced Tuesday.

“3M has agreed to modify its original proposed settlement in critical ways that will benefit the American people,” Bonta said in a statement. “However, 3M declined to pay an amount that accurately reflects the extraordinary damage it has caused to public drinking water systems, and it declined to provide water suppliers the money to re-mediate that damage more quickly.”

The Associated Press reached out to 3M for comment Tuesday.