3M announced it has agreed to pay $6 billion to settle lawsuits by U.S. service members who claim they suffered hearing loss and tinnitus after using the company’s Combat Arms earplugs.

The settlement comes just two months after a U.S. bankruptcy judge dismissed 3M subsidiary Aearo Technologies’ attempt at bankruptcy to settle the more than 250,000 product liability cases against it. It became the largest mass tort in U.S. history.

“Under the agreement, 3M will contribute a total amount of $6.0 billion between 2023 and 2029, which is structured under the agreement to include $5.0 billion in cash and $1.0 billion in 3M common stock,” the company said in a statement

“This agreement, reached through the mediation process that 3M has previously disclosed, is structured to promote participation by claimants and is intended to resolve all claims associated with the Combat Arms Earplug products.”

3M did not accept liability and maintains that the earplugs are safe. As part of the settlement agreement, 3M can walk away from the deal if less than 98% of the eligible claimants decide to participate. 

“I am confident that this more than $6 billion settlement will receive full and overwhelming support, not just because it holds 3M accountable, but more importantly, because it provides just and deserved compensation to our veterans,” Bryan Aylstock, the court-appointed lead plaintiffs’ counsel, told CNBC via email.

3M Combat Arms Ear Plugs

Between 2003 and 2015, Aearo Technologies and 3M supplied the U.S. military with dual-ended Combat Arms earplugs. The standard-issue earplugs were designed to allow the soldiers to hear commands and fellow soldiers while still protecting their hearing.

When soldiers inserted the olive-colored end of the earplug, their ears were blocked and protected against loud noises like gunshots. When the yellow-colored end was inserted, they were protected but could still hear instructions and fellow soldiers.

In 2018, the company agreed to pay $9.1 million in a whistleblower lawsuit to resolve allegations that it knowingly supplied the military with defective earplugs. 

The lawsuit was brought by Moldex-Metric Inc., a respiratory and hearing protection manufacturer, and claimed that Aearo knew the combat earplugs were defective because they were not long enough to be properly inserted and could loosen without the users’ knowledge. 3M settled that case but did not admit to wrongdoing.

Tinnitus and Hearing Loss

The main injuries claimed in the 3M Combat Arms earplug lawsuits are hearing loss and tinnitus, both of which can impact a soldier’s ability to do their job. It can also affect a soldier’s quality of life and mental health. 

Symptoms of combat-related hearing problems include:

  • Ears feel full when you leave a loud place
  • Ringing or buzzing in the ears
  • Difficulty hearing someone who is nearby
  • Hard to understand what people are saying

Veterans who are interested in pursuing a lawsuit against 3M will not lose their VA benefits, if they receive them, lawyers say. Personal injury settlements will not affect disability compensation because the government does not base compensation on how much a veteran earns.