Basic Military Trainees take a baseline hearing assessment May 12, 2015, on Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.
Recruits in basic training on Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland take a baseline hearing assessment in 2015. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo / Staff Sgt. Jerilyn Quintanilla

Joe Contreras served in the U.S. Army between 2000 and 2014. Before retiring as a staff sergeant, Contreras spent more than three years in combat zones: Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places.

Toward the end of his military career, Contreras suffered a constant noise in his ears, a worsening condition he could neither understand nor remedy. His hearing deteriorated.

An Army doctor diagnosed Contreras with tinnitus and hearing loss. While Contreras tends to medical treatment for his hearing problems, he hopes to get some justice.

He’s one of 18 active-duty and retired servicemen and women named as plaintiffs in a lawsuit that local law firm Phipps Deacon Purnell filed Friday against Minnesota-based 3M, which manufactured the earplugs. Filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in San Antonio, the lawsuit claims 3M knowingly provided defective earplugs to U.S. soldiers, resulting in serious and permanent injuries.

“Putting my life on the line to defend my country is something I would do all over again but having my hearing damaged by a contractor looking to profit is the ultimate disrespect,” Contreras said in a press release from the law firm.

Contreras is one of six plaintiffs who live in Bexar County. Another five plaintiffs hail from Nueces County, whose governmental home is in Corpus Christi, and the rest are from other parts of the country.

The suit alleges that dual-ended earplugs made by 3M for military use were too short to be properly inserted into users’ ears. A copy of the lawsuit – which also names Aearo Technologies, a 3M subsidiary that originally developed the earplugs – can be found here.

3M’s Combat Arms plugs would gradually loosen and leave users vulnerable to hearing loss or damage, the suit claims. Victims are now enduring a range of problems, from ringing in the ears or loss of balance to outright hearing loss.

“The consequences of 3M’s decision to knowingly provide the U.S. military with faulty ear protection is felt heavily in San Antonio, where more than 80,000 service members reside,” Senior Partner Martin Phipps said in the news release.

In a statement, 3M denied the allegations.

“3M has great respect for the brave men and women who protect us around the world, and their safety is our priority,” the statement reads. “We have a long history of partnering with the U.S. military, and we continue to make products to help protect our troops and support their missions.”

Plaintiffs in this suit seek financial damages that would cover lost work earnings and related medical expenses.

At a hearing later this month in Washington, D.C., a panel of seven federal judges will determine the most suitable venue to hear the merits of the San Antonio-based suit.

“We believe San Antonio – Military City, USA – is a good venue to hear the case,” T.J. Mayes, junior partner with Phipps Deacon Purnell, told the Rivard Report.

The suit is the latest in a series of individual and class-action lawsuits with similar allegations being filed by servicemen and women against 3M.

The company in 2018 paid $9.1 million to the U.S. Department of Justice in order to resolve claims that it knowingly supplied the federal government with defective earplugs.

Earlier this year, two Houston law firms filed 100 lawsuits in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in Waco.

“3M knew that the earplugs did not meet the specifications and design criteria of the military, and instead of correcting the flaws, it chose to conceal the problem,” said Mo Aziz, a Houston-based attorney representing Army Sgt. Scott Rowe, in one of the suits.

The new San Antonio lawsuit alleges that 3M provided millions of faulty earplugs to the military from 2003 through 2015.

3M officials knew about issues with the earplugs as early as 2000 and yet withheld that information from the government as it entered into a contract to purchase the devices, documents allege.

The company discontinued the Combat Arms product in 2015, but defective pairs were not recalled and potentially remain in use, the lawsuit claims.

“Government contractors who seek to profit at the expense of our military will face appropriate consequences,” said Chad Readler, acting assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Division, in a release.

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.