3M Loses First Defective Earplug Trial

by | May 3, 2021 | Products Liability

A federal jury in Florida ordered the company to pay over $7 million in damages to three veterans who claimed that defective 3M earplugs caused their hearing loss.

According to court documents, the company knowingly sold these defective earplugs between 2007 and 2013. The company now faces about 200,000 lawsuits. “The evidence is clear: 3M knew their earplugs were defective, yet they allowed our servicemembers to suffer these life-altering injuries,” victims’ attorneys declared in a statement. This trial was the first bellwether trial in this area. Bellwether trials basically test the waters and help plaintiffs and defendants ascertain the strength of their claims and defenses.

In a statement, the company said it was not negligent and planned to appeal the verdict.

3M Earplugs: A Closer Look

These combat earplugs resemble two cones which are joined at their pointy ends. Apparently, there was a tiny gap between these two cones which may have been no thicker than a fingernail. Yet that gap meant that the 3M earplug didn’t effectively block all loud noises. It only blocked almost all of them. Over time, that tiny design defect caused serious injury.

Manufacturers are strictly liable for design defects. They are also strictly liable for manufacturing defects. Zantac is a good example of a manufacturing defect. When this medication is stored at room temperature, such as a shipping container, NDMA grows like bacteria. N-Nitrosodimethylamine is one of the most carcinogenic substances in nature.

Given this law and the facts of the case, the trial’s outcome is not surprising. Federal regulators fined 3M for violating the False Claims Act. Prosecutors alleged that the company knowingly sold defective earplugs to the U.S. military. That’s not the same thing as a defective product claim, but it’s definitely strike one.

The judge in this case called strike two when he disallowed the military contractor defense. This doctrine states that companies cannot be held civilly liable if the government accepts the goods it sold. Given 3M’s lack of candor with the government, and that’s putting it mildly, this defense was probably doomed from the beginning.

So, at trial, 3M was already down in the count 0-2. A Lexington personal injury attorney only had to get one more pitch over the plate. And, given the low burden of proof in these cases, as mentioned above, that task wasn’t too hard.

Statistically, baseball players hit just .152 if the count is 0-2. Similarly, defendants have little chance of winning a trial at this point. Therefore, many claims settle after pretrial hearings. Defendants know their odds of success are low, so they try to minimize the damage.

However, defective product claims are different, especially at the bellwether trial stage. Companies like 3M have a brand image to protect. 

Talcum powder lawsuits are a good example. Johnson & Johnson no longer sells this product. Even when it did, talcum powder sales made up only a fraction of the company’s revenue. But J&J’s brand is at stake. They want to be known as a healthy company, not a company which sold talcum powder laced with asbestos. So, Johnson & Johnson usually fights talcum powder claims tooth and nail. 3M, although it agreed to a partial settlement, might do the same thing.

Damages in a Personal Injury Claim

Usually, compensatory damages include economic and noneconomic damages. Medical bills are usually the largest component of economic damages in a personal injury claim. In a serious injury case, like a head injury, the medical bills often exceed $100,000. In a catastrophic injury claim, like a spine injury, they could exceed $4 million.

Other losses in this category include lost wages and property damage. In many cases, lost wages really means lost productivity. That’s especially true if the victim was self-employed. Property damage includes a financial and emotional component. A family car’s emotional value often exceeds its Blue Book value.

Compensatory damages also include noneconomic losses, such as emotional distress and loss of enjoyment in life. Victims are entitled to such compensation because compensatory damages must put the victim in the same place s/he would have been if the injury hadn’t occurred.

Punitive damages are different. These damages punish wayward companies and force them to change the way they do business. Because of these goals, punitive damages in a defective product claim are often quite high. 3M earned over $32 billion in 2019. Unless punitive damages are at least six figures, the award is the equivalent of loose change between the sofa cushions. Such a low amount wouldn’t convince anyone to do anything.

Defective product victims are entitled to significant compensation. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury lawyer in Lexington, contact the Goode Law Office, PLLC. The sooner you reach out to us, the sooner we start working for you. #goodelawyers