3M owes $58 million to two veterans in latest combat earplug trials

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The 3M Global Headquarters in Maplewood, Minnesota, U.S. is photographed on March 4, 2020. Picture taken March 4, 2020. REUTERS/Nicholas Pfosi

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  • Former service members awarded $50 mln, $8 mln verdicts
  • $50 million award is one of the largest in massive multidistrict litigation

(Reuters) - Federal juries on Friday awarded a total of $58 million to two former service members who said combat earplugs that 3M Co sold to the military caused them to suffer hearing damage, the latest verdicts to result from hundreds of thousands of lawsuits over the product.

Jurors in Pensacola, Florida, awarded $50 million to Luke Vilsmeyer, a U.S. Army veteran who said that after using 3M's Combat Arms Earplugs Version 2 from 2006 to 2017 primarily during training he suffered permanent hearing loss and severe tinnitus.

Later, a Tallahassee jury awarded $8 million in compensatory damages to Steven Wilkerson, who said using the earplugs while serving in the Army National Guard during training and combat caused him to develop tinnitus and hearing loss.

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They are among the more than 280,000 former and active military members who have sued 3M claiming the company's combat earplugs are defective and damaged their hearing, in what has become the largest federal mass tort litigation in U.S. history.

The verdict in Vilsmeyer's case was the second largest in the litigation and was made up entirely of compensatory damages. The 42-year-old Indiana resident served in the army from 1999 to 2020, first as a howitzer gunner and later as a Green Beret.

The lead lawyers for the plaintiffs in the litigation – Bryan Aylstock of Aylstock, Witkin, Kreis & Overholtz; Shelley Hutson of Clark, Love & Hutson and Chris Seeger of Seeger Weiss – noted 3M had lost six earlier trials.

"It is clear 3M’s defenses — whether in the courts, to investors, or the public — are unconvincing and without merit," the plaintiffs' lawyers said in a joint statement.

3M, which was represented by Mike Brock and Brent Rogers of Kirkland & Ellis, in a statement said it was disappointed and will appeal. It said the issues raised in its earlier appeals relating to legal defenses and evidentiary rulings applied to both cases.

On appeal in an earlier case, 3M had argued that the military was responsible for the product's design and that the plaintiffs' state law claims were preempted because of 3M's role as a federal contractor following government mandates.

Aearo Technologies, which 3M bought in 2008, developed the product. Plaintiffs allege the company hid design flaws, fudged test results and failed to provide instructions for the proper use of the earplugs.

Plaintiffs had won more than $160 million combined in six previous bellwether trials, including a $110 million award in January to two U.S. Army veterans. Juries have sided with 3M in five other trials. A 14th trial begins Monday.

The MDL is In re 3M Combat Arms Earplug Products Liability Litigation, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Florida, No. 19-md-2885.

For the plaintiffs: Bryan Aylstock, Daniel Thornburgh and Jennifer Hoekstra of Aylstock, Witkin, Kreis & Overholtz; Shelley Hutson of Clark, Love & Hutson; Chris Seeger and Caleb Seeley of Seeger Weiss; Joseph Messa of Messa & Associates; Richard Laminack, Thomas Pirtle and Buffy Martines of Laminack, Pirtle & Martines; Adam Wolfson of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan; and Katherine Cornell of Pulaski Kherkher

For 3M: Mike Brock and Brent Rogers of Kirkland & Ellis

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.