Product liability lawsuit against 3M may proceed, Indianapolis judge says

Indianapolis-based Aearo Technologies LLC’s recent bankruptcy filing won’t shield parent 3M Co. from massive flood of product liability lawsuits over Aeros’ military earplugs, judge says .

Since 2018, more than 230,000 plaintiffs across the country have filed lawsuits against Aearo and 3M over Aearo’s now-discontinued Combat Arms noise-reducing earplugs, which were used by the U.S. military between 2003 and 2015. The plaintiffs allege that they suffered hearing damage because the earplugs failed to adequately shield them from battle sounds.

Aearo is a subsidiary of St. Paul, Minnesota-based 3M Co., which acquired Aearo in 2008 for $1.2 billion.

Aearo filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy July 26 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Indiana. In a related action, 3M committed $1 billion to fund a trust for the plaintiffs and another $240 million to fund the administration of Aearo’s bankruptcy filing.

In a statement released at the time, 3M said the measures were intended to more efficiently resolve the thousands of combat arms claims that could otherwise take “years, if not decades, to litigate on a case-by-case basis.”

Under the law, product liability lawsuits against Aearo are automatically stayed — put on hold — while the company works its way toward bankruptcy. But 3M itself has not filed for bankruptcy. On the same day it filed for bankruptcy, Aero also asked the court to extend this automatic stay to 3M.

On Friday, Judge Jeffrey Graham of the US Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Indiana denied that request, meaning litigation against 3M can continue.

In a statement released Friday, 3M said it was “disappointed with the court’s decision” and planned to appeal.

The company also reiterated its position that settling Combat Arms’ claims through bankruptcy is a better option than suing.

“The well-established Chapter 11 process provides a simpler and more efficient path to resolution without the uncertainty and unfairness of continuing litigation,” 3M’s statement said. “Plaintiffs determined to be entitled to compensation will be paid more efficiently and fairly compared to individual lawsuits in courts nationwide.

Florida attorney Bryan Aylstock and New Jersey attorney Christopher Seeger, who are lead attorneys representing plaintiffs in the product liability litigation, said they were satisfied with Friday’s decision.

“Judge Graham’s decision is a complete dismissal of 3M’s attempt to escape liability and hide in bankruptcy after multiple juries found it liable for knowingly causing hearing damage to those who served our nation,” Aylstock and Seeger said in a prepared statement. “This is a tremendous victory for the 230,000 US service members who have been harmed by 3M’s deceit and greed.”

For their part, Aearo and 3M maintain that the earplugs were effective when used correctly.

Aearo, based at 7911 Zionsville Road in the northwest of the city, has 330 employees and generated about $108 million in direct sales last year, according to bankruptcy papers. The company discontinued its Combat Arms earplugs in 2015. It currently manufactures noise, vibration, heat and shock protection products primarily for the aerospace, utility vehicle, heavy equipment industries and electronics.

Aeroro’s roots date back to the 1940s, when the American Optical Co. began manufacturing and selling respirators. The company has had a series of different owners since then and changed its name to Aearo in the 1990s.