A Florida federal judge recently unsealed some documents in a defective 3M earplug lawsuit. These documents cast 3M in a decidedly negative light.
26-year-old veteran Gabriel Thompson suffers from chronic ringing in the ears. He said it was “ridiculous” that he has to now wear a hearing aid every day for the rest of his life. Some of the unsealed depositions might help people like Thompson obtain compensation for their injuries. For example, one 3M executive says, on the record, that soldiers didn’t need to know their earplugs were only 90 percent effective. Another executive said “yes” when a lawyer asked “Is that okay, to sell a product and conceal information where it will have a negative effect on our soldiers?”
In a statement, 3M denied any wrongdoing and said “We will vigorously defend ourselves against such allegations.”
The Nuts and Bolts of Hearing Loss
Hearing loss is one of the most common and most preventable long-term health issues. For these reasons, these cases often have very favorable outcomes, from a financial and health standpoint.
Roughly 30 million Americans suffer from hearing loss in one or both ears. In a significant number of these instances, the hearing loss is completely disabling.
Tinnitus (ringing in the ears) is the most common physical effect. Difficulty distinguishing sounds is a close second. These victims cannot follow normal conversations if there is any additional noise, like background music.
Hearing loss also has emotional effects. Since they cannot follow conversations or effectively participate in them, many of these victims withdraw from family and friends. Additionally, many have anger issues. 1940s prizefighter Jake LaMotta, who was profiled in the 1980 film Raging Bull, was 40 percent deaf in one ear. That physical disability led to fits of uncontrollable anger.
Military veterans often suffer from hearing loss. At practice ranges, hundreds of people might fire their weapons simultaneously. Combat-related noise, such as exploding IEDs, is infinitely worse.
Other people, such as railroad workers, are also at risk for hearing loss. Prolonged exposure to noises as low as 90 decibels, which is slightly louder than a busy street corner in Lexington, can cause permanent hearing loss.
If caught early enough, hearing loss is relatively easy to treat. Tiny hearing aids effectively filter noise and amplify sounds. More advanced cases are a different matter. If the eardrum is damaged, doctors must repair it surgically. This procedure usually involves drilling holes in the person’s skull and attaching a device to the ear. Such surgery is very invasive and very expensive. Additionally, there is no guarantee of success.
To effectively block loud noises, hearing aids must form a protective seal in the ear canal. If any sound seeps through, it could cause hearing loss. Legally, manufacturers are strictly liable for damages their defective products cause. Incomplete seals could be a result of:
- Design Defect: The ear is so delicate and loud noises are so powerful that the design must be flawless. “Close” only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Unfortunately, for many companies, it is cheaper to proceed with a defective design and risk legal action than it is to go back to the drawing board.
- Manufacturing Defect: Some manufacturers use cheap materials to save money. For example, many metal hip implants have high levels of toxic substances, like mercury and cobalt. Other times, there is an error in the manufacturing process, and quality control people do not correct it, often because their managers tell them to ignore the problem.
Failure to warn is usually an issue in defective product claims as well. 3M knew as early as 2000 that its military earplugs were too short to provide effective protection. Yet the company kept selling these earplugs for another decade.
Compensatory damages usually include money for economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering. The degree of disability (20 percent, 40 percent, etc.) often determines the amount of noneconomic losses.
Additionally, many defective product claims include additional punitive damages. Money, and lots of it, is the only language most large companies speak. Unless they lose substantial money, they will not change the way they do business. So, significant punitive damages are the best way, and sometimes the only way, to keep the company from taking advantage of other consumers.
Military service does not always cause service-related hearing loss. For a free consultation with an experienced mass tort lawyer in Lexington, contact the Goode Law Office, PLLC. We routinely handle these matters throughout the Bluegrass State.