Chemical and consumer product manufacturer 3M said Tuesday it has agreed to pay $6 billion to settle lawsuits from U.S. service members who say they experienced hearing loss or other serious injuries after using faulty earplugs made by the company.
The settlement, consisting of $5 billion in cash and $1 billion in 3M stock, will be made in payments that will run through 2029.
Hundreds of thousands of veterans and current service members have sued 3M and Aearo Technologies, a company that 3M acquired in 2008, over their Combat Arms Earplugs. 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 litigation, the Florida-based law firm notes that 3M previously agreed to pay $9.1 million to settle a lawsuit on behalf of the government alleging the company knowingly supplied defective earplugs to the U.S. 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.
In Tuesday's announcement, 3M maintained that the agreement — which includes all claims in Florida's multidistrict 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 U.S. bankruptcy court.
Beyond the earplug litigation, 3M in June agreed to pay at least $10.3 billion to settle lawsuits over contamination of many U.S. 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 finalized yet, and the settlement payment could reach as high as $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 favor of 3M.
James, along with the other attorneys general, have now withdrawn their opposition, her office said. According to court records, the judge granted preliminary approval of the agreement Tuesday afternoon.
In a statement sent to The Associated Press Tuesday, a spokesperson for 3M said the company was pleased to have to clarified the agreement and see the attorneys' general objections withdrawn — adding that the deal "will benefit U.S.-based public water systems nationwide that provide drinking water to a vast majority of Americans without the need for further litigation by or on behalf of public water systems."
While these objections were withdrawn, five attorneys general still filed an amicus letter expressing concerns over 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 remediate that damage more quickly."
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