Product-liability lawsuits against 3M can proceed, Indianapolis judge rules

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

Since 2018, more than 230,000 claimants around the country have filed suit against Aearo and 3M over Aearo’s now-discontinued Combat Arms noise-reduction earplugs, which were used by U.S. service members between 2003 and 2015. The claimants allege that they suffered hearing damage because the earplugs did not properly protect them from combat noise.

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

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

In a statement issued at the time, 3M said the moves were 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.”

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

On Friday, Judge Jeffrey Graham of U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Southern District of Indiana denied that request—meaning that the litigation against 3M can proceed.

In a statement issued Friday, 3M said it was “disappointed in the court’s ruling” and planned to file an appeal.

The company also reiterated its position that resolving the Combat Arms claims via bankruptcy is a better option than proceeding with litigation.

“The well-established Chapter 11 process provides a simpler, more efficient path to resolution without the uncertainty and inequity of continuing to litigate,” 3M’s statement said. “Plaintiffs determined to be entitled to compensation will be paid more efficiently and equitably compared to trying individual cases in courts around the country.

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

“Judge Graham’s decision is a complete rejection of 3M’s attempt to evade accountability 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 U.S. servicemembers who have been harmed by 3M’s deception and greed.”

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

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, according to bankruptcy documents. The company discontinued its Combat Arms earplugs in 2015. It currently makes noise, vibration, thermal and shock protection products, mostly for the aerospace, commercial vehicle, heavy equipment and electronics industries.

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.

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