Despite concerns about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. District Judge presiding over more than 200,000 3M earplug hearing loss lawsuits brought by veterans nationwide is pressing forward with the first “bellwether” trial, which is expected to involve three consolidated claims, which will go before a jury in person in late March.
Each of the lawsuits against 3M Company raise similar allegations, indicating defective “Combat Arms” earplugs were sold to the U.S. Government and distributed as standard military issue to all service members between 2003 and 2015, resulting in widespread hearing loss, tinnitus and other problems.
The 3M earplugs featured a dual-ended or reversible design, which were supposed to block all sound when inserted one way, but provide selective filtering when reversed. This was intended to reduce loud impulse sounds, while allowing users to hear spoken commands. However, according to allegations raised in the litigation, 3M withheld critical safety information and instructions on proper use, causing the earplugs to commonly fall out and not properly seal the ear canal.
Given common questions of fact and law raised in lawsuits, a federal multidistrict litigation (MDL) has been established before U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers in the Northern District of Florida, where the cases have been centralized for discovery and a series of “bellwether” trials intended to help the parties gauge how juries are likely to respond to certain evidence and testimony that will be repeated throughout the claims.
On January 25, Judge Rodgers issued an order (PDF) confirming the first jury trial will begin on March 29, and conclude by April 27. The trial will involve claims presented by three veterans, and the Court is planning to have the parties present evidence and testimony live and in-person to the jury.
The order indicates the deputy clerk will disinfect the witness stand after each testimony, and directs counsel to take responsibility for disinfecting the lectern after each use. The Court will provide parties with alcohol wipes, and Judge Rodgers states other safety precautions will be discussed with parties prior to the start of the trial.
In a case management order (PDF) issued on the same day, Judge Rodgers indicated a second bellwether trial will begin on May 17, with a third trial starting on June 7.
While the outcomes of these early trials will not be binding on other plaintiffs, they will be closely watched by parties involved in the litigation any may have a substantial impact on potential settlement negotiations that will avoid the need for tens of thousands of individual cases involving hearing loss from 3M earplugs going before juries nationwide in the coming years.