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3M agrees to pay $6 billion to service members for faulty earplugs

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

3M has agreed to pay $6 billion to veterans and service members who say their hearing was damaged while they used faulty earplugs made by a 3M subsidiary. Now it's up to the quarter-million plaintiffs to decide if they want to participate in the settlement. Jay Price of member station WUNC has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN RHODES: Today is an important step forward for 3M.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Kevin Rhodes, 3M's chief legal affairs officer, explained the deal to investors during a conference call. It is an important step to end investor uncertainty over the cost to settle one of the largest mass torts in history and for the quarter of a million people who have filed claims, like James Parsons of Sanford, N.C.

JAMES PARSONS: There's no such thing as a quiet room.

PRICE: The retired Special Forces master sergeant suffers from a ringing in the ears he says is a constant, almost maddening presence.

PARSONS: The only way I can describe it to anybody is actually take a TV and turn the volume up till it matches my tinnitus. And people are like, oh, my God. That's what you hear?

PRICE: At that point, he says, the TV's volume is nearly all the way up. Parsons spent a total of almost three years fighting in Afghanistan, often, he said, while wearing Combat Arms earplugs. Issued to troops from 2003 to 2015, they were designed to let conversation and commands through but blunt the force of loud noises like gunfire and explosions. But the plaintiffs say they could let damaging sounds through by not sealing properly. At age 52, Parsons has moderate-to-severe hearing loss.

PARSONS: It really makes being social really, really awkward, to include at work. I work for the military or work alongside the military, so things are a little bit different. But to go through civilian life in the civilian world where people - you're trying to read their lips as much as you are trying to hear what they're saying is frustrating.

PRICE: 3M says the settlement is not an admission of liability, and the earplugs worked when used properly. The deal still faces hurdles. A big one is 98% of the claimants need to agree to participate, or 3M can back out. But plaintiff's attorney Christopher Seeger, who helped negotiate the deal, says he's confident enough will be satisfied with the settlement amounts and want to avoid facing a lengthy court fight, one they could lose on their own.

CHRISTOPHER SEEGER: Justice doesn't always look perfect, but you can't let perfect get in the way of really good. This was a really good result to get some compensation and get some people taken care of quickly.

PRICE: He says the plan is to organize settlements into three broad categories, including an accelerated process for those who have modest issues and are willing to accept smaller payments. Those settlements could top out around $25,000. Those who have suffered serious harm could get substantially more. Plaintiffs like Parsons, though, say the money really isn't the point.

PARSONS: For me, it's about accountability.

PRICE: He says as an Army senior non-commissioned officer, his job had been looking out for his troops, so he felt obligated to send a message that suppliers shouldn't sell the military defective safety equipment. Another plaintiff, south Florida Navy veteran Sandra Burbano, says she's also looking for accountability.

SANDRA BURBANO: I wanted it in, like, more direct impact in the sense that whoever was responsible to actually do some jail time. But in reality, I knew it wouldn't happen. I wish I can say, well, you know, with these money, I can have a surgery.

PRICE: Burbano works in IT, dealing with clients on the phone. She got hearing aids from the VA, but her hearing loss is still a constant problem. And there's no operation, no amount of money, she says, that can fix that. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Durham, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jay Price
Jay Price has specialized in covering the military for nearly a decade.