More than 300,000 people in Illinois and around the country have filed lawsuits against the multinational manufacturer 3M over allegedly defective earplugs. Most of the plaintiffs are former members of the military who were issued the earplugs while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003 and 2015. The cases have been filed all over the country, but they will be heard in a single federal court through a process known as multidistrict litigation. This is a procedure that eases the burden on the federal court system by consolidating cases that have the same defendant and basically the same set of facts.
When hundreds or even thousands of lawsuits are connected in this way, a small number of them are chosen to move forward. This gives the court and the attorneys on both sides a better idea of how the litigation will ultimately play out. Eleven of these bellwether cases have already been decided by juries. The plaintiffs won six of the cases, and 3M prevailed in the other five.
$110 million verdict
The most recent bellwether case was brought by two former soldiers who claim that defective 3M earplugs left them with permanent hearing damage. They alleged in their personal injury lawsuit that 3M knew their earplugs were defective and fabricated test results to cover up the shortcomings. The jury was swayed by these arguments and awarded each of the plaintiffs $15 million in compensatory damages and $40 million in punitive damages. In a statement released shortly after the jury verdict was made public on Jan. 27, 3M denied the allegations made by the two former soldiers and vowed to mount an appeal.
These lawsuits are likely to be settled even though 3M is winning in court almost as often as it loses. Multinational corporations have almost unlimited resources to fight protracted legal battles, but they usually look for ways to avoid facing sympathetic juries in court. This is especially true when the juries in bellwether cases have awarded punitive damages, which suggests they found the defendant’s actions particularly egregious.