Army Vet Blames Earplug Maker for Hearing Damage

HOUSTON (CN) – An Army veteran said he didn’t notice the ringing in his ears until he returned home in 2004 from a deployment to Iraq. Now, nearly 15 years later, the ringing has not gone away. In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, he accuses 3M Company of supplying defective earplugs to the military.

“Every day I have to live with a high-pitched frequency in my ear that’s deafening. I’m never at peace,” Scott Rowe said Tuesday.

Muhammad Aziz, Scott Rowe and Andrew Cobos discuss Rowe’s lawsuit over 3M earplugs at a Houston law firm on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019. A photo of an allegedly defective earplug is seen in the background. (Photo by Cameron Langford/CNS)

Rowe, 40, was deployed to Iraq from March 2003 to April 2004, serving in the 4th Platoon of the 411th Military Police Company, in the first months of the Iraq War. He was on site when U.S. soldiers found Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein hiding in a hole outside a farmhouse near Tikrit in December 2003, his attorney said.

Rowe sued 3M in Waco federal court, though he announced the filing at his attorney’s office in downtown Houston.

Based in Minnesota, 3M is best known for making Scotch tape. It also manufactures Post-It notes and insect repellant.

According to Rowe’s complaint, the U.S. military awarded 3M’s predecessor Aearo Technologies Inc. a contract in 2003 to supply its CombatArms brand earplugs to soldiers. Aearo allegedly did not disclose the plugs were too short to fit properly and apt to come loose without the soldier realizing it.

Aearo also lied about the earplugs’ noise reduction rating and did not tell the military that for the earplugs to work properly, flanges on them had to be folded back so they could be placed more deeply into the ear, according to the lawsuit.

3M bought Aearo in 2008 and took over the military contract, which was discontinued thanks to a competitor’s federal whistleblower complaint about the earplugs.

On behalf of the United States of America, Moldex-Metric Inc. sued 3M in May 2016 in South Carolina federal court for alleged unjust enrichment and False Claim Act violations.

Some of the allegations in Rowe’s lawsuit are taken from the whistleblower’s complaint, though he is making different legal claims.

Without admitting liability, 3M agreed to pay Uncle Sam a $9.1 million settlement, of which $1.9 million was set aside for Moldex-Metric, according to a July 2018 settlement deal.

In a statement announcing the settlement, 3M said it has stopped making the earplugs.

But that’s no consolation for Rowe, who said that besides his tinnitus, he suffers from other health problems tied to his hearing damage.

“I don’t get peace and quiet like some people do. It’s just constant. I go to sleep with background noise just so that I’m able to sleep. Headaches, dizziness, things like that happen all the time,” he told reporters Tuesday.

He is represented by Muhammad Aziz, partner in the Houston firm Abraham, Watkins, Sorrels, Agosto and Aziz. His other attorney, Andrew Cobos, is a fellow military veteran who said his own hearing was damaged by 3M’s earplugs.

Cobos said he was a platoon leader in Iraq and Rowe served under him.

“I also suffer from tinnitus. Not to the degree that Sgt. Rowe does, not to the degree that a lot of other soldiers do. But this is a common problem throughout the military. There are a lot of folks who are afflicted with this condition,” said Cobos, a partner with the Houston firm Bell Rose & Cobos.

According to the U.S. Veteran’s Administration, hearing loss is the most common medical issue for military veterans. More than 2.7 million veterans get disability benefits for hearing loss, or tinnitus, including Rowe.

Rowe, who now lives near Waco and is a detective for a law enforcement agency, said the military has not yet been able to give him hearing aids.

But Aziz said hearing aids won’t help Rowe.

“A hearing aid is not going to cure tinnitus,” the attorney said. “That’s a condition he’s going to have to live with, unless there’s some change in medicine.”

Rowe seeks punitive damages for claims of product liability, gross negligence and negligence. He also wants 3M ordered to pay damages for his pain and suffering and lost wages.

3M said it has a strong record of fulfilling military contracts and denied Rowe’s claims.

“3M has a long history of serving the U.S. military. We have sold and continue to sell thousands of products to help our troops and support their missions. Safety is a key component of what we do for the United States military and 3M denies that Combat Arms Earplugs caused injuries,” its spokeswoman Fanna Haile-Selassie said in a statement.

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