US veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan among 300,000 suing manufacturer over ear plugs


A U.S. military veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan for two years is one of nearly 300,000 ex-servicemen suing an ear plugs manufacturer claiming the devices were faulty.

Joseph Sigmon, 37, from North Carolina, was diagnosed with tinnitus — a constant ringing in the ears — after returning from the battlefield in 2013.

The father-of-two claims the condition — which can be sparked by prolonged exposure to loud sounds — is due to manufacturing giant 3M’s $7.63-a-pair plugs.

But 3M argues that its ear plugs worked well, and that it is not liable for any damage as they were asked to make adjustments to the devices at the behest of military contractors, which are responsible for the product’s failure to work.

Court filings show the plugs were shortened by a quarter of an inch when they were supplied between 1999 and 2015, meaning they did not fit all soldiers correctly. 

3M is currently facing one of the biggest multi-district litigations in U.S. history, and is already expected to pay out $220 million to 12 veterans who won their cases. The company is appealing the verdicts.

Joseph Sigmon (pictured), 37, from North Carolina, claims ear plugs supplied to the U.S. military for $7.63-a-pair left him with tinnitus, which is a constant ringing in the ears

Sigmon (pictured) has served both in Iraq and Afghanistan, and when he was discharged had reached the rank of staff sergeant in the military

Sigmon (pictured) has served both in Iraq and Afghanistan, and when he was discharged had reached the rank of staff sergeant in the military 

The ear plugs from 3M that Sigmon alleges did not work

Sigmon pictured on tour in Afghanistan in 2013 where he helped train Afghan soldiers to use artillery

Pictured above are the earplugs supplied by 3M (left) and Sigmon on tour in Afghanistan (right) where he helped train Afghan soldiers how to use artillery

Tinnitus is a condition where someone experiences a regular ringing, buzzing or hissing in their ears which is not triggered by sounds from the outside world.

It occurs due to damage to the cochlear hair cells in the inner ear, which stretch and contract like with sound-induced vibrations, often due to very loud noises.

The cause of the condition is not always clear, but it is often linked to hearing loss, regular exposure to loud noises and as a side-effect of some medications.

Treatment focuses on counselling and therapies to help people find ways of coping with their condition and reducing any anxiety it causes. 

What is tinnitus? 

Tinnitus is the name for hearing noises, such as ringing, buzzing or hissing, that are not caused by an outside source, according to the NHS.

It occurs due to damage to the cochlear hair cells in the inner ear, which stretch and contract in accordance with sound-induced vibrations.

Very loud noises – at a nightclub or played over headphones – can overload these cells, leaving them temporarily or permanently damages.

The damage forces other parts of the ear to overwork to compensate for the loss of function, which leads to tinnitus and eventually chronic hearing loss.

Treatment focuses on counselling and therapies to help people find ways of coping with their condition and reducing any anxiety it causes.

Tinnitus retraining therapy uses sound therapy to retrain the brain to tune out and be less aware of ringing and buzzing noises.

Deep breathing, yoga and joining support groups can also help.

Sigmon said he used the ear plugs ‘religiously’ while in action, but feared they were not working.

He told NBC: ‘I remember me and my buddies talking about how the earplugs aren’t working. 

‘When you would fire your rifle, you could still feel a pinprick in your ear. You could feel the percussion. You could feel that sharp pain — the crack from it.’

‘[But] We wrote it off thinking these earplugs were protecting us — that was what we were told.’

He added: ‘I was religious with [wearing] this, I was religious with every piece of my equipment because I wanted to come home, I wanted to see my family again.’ 

Sigmon reached the rank of staff sergeant during his career in the military, serving in Iraq in 2006, and Afghanistan in 2013 where he helped train local soldiers how to use artillery. 

All soldiers are required to wear ear plugs by the U.S. military while in action or in training.

But hearing problems are still the most common difficulty for army veterans to face, accounting for about one in ten disability claims, Vets Guardian reports.

Scientists say this is due to the deafening sounds they are exposed to while on the battlefield which often exceed 150 decibels (dB).

For comparison, doctors recommend no one should hear sounds above 70 dB — equivalent to a loud vacuum cleaner — for long periods of time.

Manufacturer 3M supplied its ear plugs — called CAEv2 — to the military up to the year 2015.

It said their spherical shape meant they gave soldiers both total hearing protection while also allowing them to hear conversations nearby.

The ear plugs were invented by Aearo Technologies LLC, which was purchased by 3M in 2008.

Court filings show that in 2000 it was asked by an un-named military contractor to shorten the ear plugs by a quarter of an inch, which it did.

Tests at Aearo showed they were too short to fit all users and could loosen in place. But the company determined they were still a good fit. 

3M said this concern was relayed to the military. 

But in 2018 it reached a $9.1 million settlement with the Department of Justice over the plugs.

Mr Sigmon says he raised fears to colleagues that the ear plugs were ineffective while he was serving on the battlefield, saying he was feeling 'pinpricks' in his ear

Mr Sigmon says he raised fears to colleagues that the ear plugs were ineffective while he was serving on the battlefield, saying he was feeling ‘pinpricks’ in his ear 

The ear plugs were supplied to the U.S. military between 1999 and 2015. They were alleged to both protect soldiers from sounds while allowing them to hear conversations nearby

The ear plugs were supplied to the U.S. military between 1999 and 2015. They were alleged to both protect soldiers from sounds while allowing them to hear conversations nearby

This alleged they had sold defective ear plugs to the military that were too short for proper insertion into all users ears, and could loosen in some people’s ears.

It added that this ‘defect’ was not disclosed to the military.

Although 3M eventually reached a settlement over this, it did not accept any wrongdoing.

However, the case has triggered an avalanche of lawsuits against the company from veterans claiming the ear plugs have damaged their hearing.

Company 3M has lost 12 out of 18 cases so far, and is now expected to pay out $220 million to veterans. It is appealing cases that it lost.

The manufacturer argues that its ear plugs were effective.

A spokesman for the company told DailyMail.com: ‘3M has great respect for the brave men and women who protect us around the world, and their safety is our priority. 

‘Twenty military and civilian labs tested the CAEv2 product while it was sold to the military from 1999-2015, and not one found anything wrong with it.

‘The CAEv2 product was safe and effective to use, and we will continue to defend ourselves and our product.’

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk