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Analytics Reveal Firms at the Heart of Massive 3M Earplugs Lawsuits

3M's logo on a corporate building.

Prague, Czech republic - May 22, 2017: 3M company logo on headquarters building on May 22, 2017 in Prague, Czech republic. 3M CEO Thulin will no longer be required to retire at 65.

3M is a giant manufacturing conglomerate involved in the fields of industry, worker safety, healthcare, and consumer goods. The litigation against them in the last four years has almost exclusively centered around their subsidiary, Aearo Technologies Inc., and its manufacture of allegedly defective earplugs for the military. 

As covered by Forbes, between 2003 and 2015, 3M and Aearo manufactured double-sided ear plugs for the US military. When one side was inserted, the plugs functioned as normal hearing protection; when the other side was inserted, the plugs filtered out certain types of large battlefield noise while allowing the wearer to hear softer, closer sounds, like talking. However, in 2016, Moldex-Metric, Inc. filed a whistleblower lawsuit alleging that the earplugs in question were too short to form a proper seal, thus leading soldiers to develop significant hearing loss and tinnitus. The Department of Justice and 3M later agreed to a $9.1 million fine in July 2018. That quarter, 3M reported nearly $4 billion in profit. 

Since then, hundreds of thousands of individuals have filed suit, seeking damages for the hearing issues these faulty plugs allegedly caused. Due to the sheer quantity of individual suits, the cases have been collated in a single docket in the Northern District of Florida. These suits peaked in April and May 2020 and have continued to the present day despite Aearo declaring bankruptcy in August 2022. Presiding Judge Casey Rogers has ruled multiple times that 3M’s liabilities are unaffected by its subsidiary Aearo’s bankruptcy protections.

On August 29, 3M announced a $6 million settlement with the plaintiffs, which includes $5 million in cash and $1 million in 3M stock. In their statement, 3M said that they admitted no liability, and that the ear plugs in question are safe when used properly. The agreement has yet to be approved by a judge.

Three firms have represented the plurality of plaintiffs in this multidistrict litigation: Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, Pulaski Kherkher, and Heninger Garrison Davis. Watts Guerra, Junelle, Johnson Law Group, and Cory Watson Attorneys have also taken on thousands of cases. None of these firms’ case counts correlate with each other except those of Johnson Law Group and those of Watts Guerra and Cory Watson Attorneys.

As to 3M, they have spread their work fairly evenly between Kirkland & Ellis, Dechert, and Blackwell Burke, who all collaborate on the same cases.

Aside from the ear plug cases, 3M has been the target of one other cluster of litigation: Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS, also known as forever chemicals, have come under scrutiny in the past five years due to new evidence about the negative health outcomes associated with their accumulation in our environment. As such, 3M, among other PFAS manufacturers has been the target of another multidistrict litigation made up primarily of municipalities. This litigation over alleged damages due to PFAS contamination has been collated in the District of South Carolina. Recently, 3M and other manufacturers agreed to a $10.3 billion settlement for a chunk of these claims, but others remain unresolved. 3M reported $3.72 billion in profits for Q2 2023.

The top plaintiff firms in this multidistrict litigation have been the Environmental Litigation Group; Douglas & London; Gacovino, Lake & Associates; Stag Liuzza; Bell Legal Group; and Napoli Shkolnik. Among these firms, the Environmental Litigation Group seems to be riding the same waves of new plaintiffs as Gacovino, Lake & Associates and Stag Liuzza. Additionally, Douglas & London’s case numbers correlate with those of Gacovino, Lake & Associates and Napoli Shkolnik suggesting the same tides are lifting their sails. 

3M has been represented by Duffy and Young as well as Mayer Brown in this litigation.

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