Indianapolis-based Aearo files for bankruptcy protection amid flood of lawsuits

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Indianapolis-based Aearo Technologies LLC, which is facing more than 230,000 product-liability lawsuits related to the performance of its Combat Arms earplugs, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.

Aearo, a subsidiary of St. Paul, Minnesota-based 3M Co., filed for bankruptcy Tuesday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Southern District of Indiana. The bankruptcy filing says Aearo’s assets and its liabilities are both in the range of $1 billion to $10 billion. The company has not yet filed documents that detail more precise figures.

Aearo, based at 7911 Zionsville Road on the city’s northwest side, has 330 employees and generated about $108 million in direct sales last year, the company said in bankruptcy documents. 3M acquired the company in 2008 for $1.2 billion.

In a related action, 3M said it has committed $1 billion to fund a trust for claimants who are entitled to compensation in the Combat Arms cases. Some of the trust funds will also be used to resolve separate claims related to now-discontinued Aearo mask and respirator products designed to protect against exposure to asbestos, silica, coal mine dust and the like.

3M has also agreed to contribute $240 million to fund the administration of Aearo’s bankruptcy case.

In a written statement, 3M said the moves are meant 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.”

3M itself has not filed for bankruptcy, and both 3M and Aearo will continue to operate as usual as Aearo’s bankruptcy case proceeds.

Between 2003 and 2015, Aearo supplied its Combat Arms earplugs to U.S. service members on overseas deployments. The earplugs were designed to protect wearers from ear damage caused by explosions, weapons fire and other combat noise.

The company discontinued the product in 2015. Since 2018, more than 230,000 claimants around the country have filed suit against Aearo and 3M claiming that the earplugs failed to properly protect them and that they suffered hearing damage as a result.

Aearo and 3M maintain that the earplugs were effective when used properly.

Aearo’s roots trace back to the 1940s, when the American Optical Co. began making and selling respirators. The company has had a series of different owners since then and changed its name to Aearo in the 1990s. Aearo currently makes a noise, vibration, thermal and shock protection products, mostly for the aerospace, commercial vehicle, heavy equipment and electronics industries.

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