An official summary of the Department of Veterans Affairs 2017 Benefits Report highlights how hearing loss and tinnitus are the most prevalent service-connected injury. In fact, the report found 1,157,585 veterans suffer from hearing loss, while an additional 1,786,980 suffer from tinnitus. Unfortunately, these numbers have steadily continued to increase due to the extremely noisy conditions and equipment that troops experience and operate on a daily basis.
Putting things into perspective, the volume of a normal conversation is roughly 60 decibels, and a lawnmower registers about 90 decibels. However, military personnel are often exposed to much louder noises. From loud equipment and machinery (120-plus decibels), and gunfire (150 decibels), to rocket artillery (180 decibels), service members work in loud and potentially hazardous conditions, experiencing between 103 decibels to 184 decibels for hours on end.
With this is mind, it’s no surprise the military works closely with its in-house and contracted equipment developers to design standard-issue safety equipment, including earplugs, that shield users against a range of conditions. However, when purchasing safety equipment in bulk, it’s possible an ineffective product or defective design could slip through the quality-control process. In some instances, manufacturers could be selling a product that doesn’t perform correctly.
In 2016, Moldex-Metric filed a whistleblower case against 3M. The False Claims Act granted Moldex-Metric the ability to file a suit on behalf of the government after thoroughly assembling evidence of fraud. The plaintiff claimed 3M, the manufacturer of the Combat Arms Earplugs Version 2 (CAEV2), knowingly sold a device that was unable to provide adequate hearing protection in the workplace and on the battlefield. In addition to loosening over time, Moldex-Metric discovered the device is too short to provide the alleged range of protection that 3M claimed in its marketing materials.
After two years of litigation, 3M agreed to settle allegations against the defective earplugs to the sum of $9.1 million, without admitting liability. For its action and legal services on behalf of the U.S. government, Moldex-Metric was awarded $1.9 million, with the remainder of the settlement going back to the federal government.
One of the biggest concerns users had about the earplugs was that they were too short to be properly inserted in the ear, and in turn, are ineffective at blocking the range of sound (103 to 184 decibels) that military personnel are exposed to frequently. In summary, the device would need to be longer in order to achieve the protection level 3M claimed it could provide. Trained audiologists who were hired to assess the CAEV2 for the Moldex-Metric case found that the devices often looked like they were inserted correctly, but were not, which resulted in compromised ear protection.
Hearing loss is taken seriously by the military, especially considering it’s possible to prevent severe hearing damage. In fact, as more veterans learn about the defective devices and are vocal about their hearing loss symptoms, multidistrict litigations are being filed and gaining national attention.
In January 2019, Army Sgt. Scott Rowe, a veteran from Texas, entered court proceedings with 3M. Rowe is seeking damages and restitution for the hearing damage he sustained while in combat. While serving in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Rowe relied on his standard-issue CAEV2 earplugs. As a result, he sustained inner-ear damage that started showing symptoms upon his return to the United States.
Including tinnitus, he claimed his injuries affected his sense of balance, causing symptoms of vertigo and making it difficult to sleep. Unfortunately, these symptoms are becoming increasingly common from the veterans who relied on faulty equipment.
In a statement by Rowe, hearing damage has a significant effect on an individual’s quality of life. “(I’m) never at peace,” Rowe said.
As further evidence, the 2017 VA study suggests veterans suffering from post-deployment hearing loss or tinnitus are more likely to have sustained extensive brain trauma, or experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression.