veterans

Veterans Sue Over Defective Hearing Protection

By Joseph Oot

Veterans nationwide are filing lawsuits against the military equipment manufacturer 3M, after a July 2018 verdict concluded the company’s dual-ended Combat Arms Earplugs Version 2 (CAEv2) were defective. The verdict in this whistleblower lawsuit, filed by Moldex-Metric on behalf of the U.S. government, paved the way for service members seeking legal restitution.  

This case began three years ago in May 2016 when Moldex-Metric, a California-based company in the military equipment industry, brought charges against their competitor, 3M. The plaintiff claimed that the original manufacturer of the CAEv2 devices, Aearo Technologies which was purchased by 3M in 2008, colluded to manipulate product tests and falsify data in order to achieve government standards and sales. Moldex-Metric was able to present evidence that both Aearo and 3M continued to sell the defective devices for more than 10 years, even though the devices were found to be too short, a defect that made the equipment difficult to properly insert in the ear. As a result, the devices were loose fitting, prone to fall out, and inadequately provided the level of protection claimed by the manufacturer.

After years of litigation, 3M agreed to settle the allegations in July 2018. 3M was ordered to pay the U.S. government $9.1 million in damages—but none of these damages compensated CAEv2 users, and 3M said this settlement was not an admission of liability. However, the verdict against 3M likely sparked the flood of class-action lawsuits filed since then.

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More than 300 lawsuits have been filed by service members seeking restitution. Retired U.S. Marine Capt. Matt Morrison of New Jersey is one such service member who in February 2019 filed his case against 3M. He says the CAEv2 devices were the direct cause of the complete hearing loss he has sustained in his right ear. While deployed between 2007 and 2013, including two tours of Iraq and one of Afghanistan, he was frequently exposed to loud equipment, machinery, gunfire, and explosions.

Along with thousands of other service members, Morrison says he came to rely on the standard-issue hearing protection as much as a bulletproof vest. "The gear you're issued is everything from a helmet to a flak jacket, eye and ear protection. I never thought that, after the fact, the gear would be faulty or defective and cause this kind of injury," Morrison told a local news reporter.

Like Morrison, active duty military members are exposed to machinery, aircraft, and sudden weaponry blasts leaving their ears susceptible to noises as loud as 184 decibels (dBA). Sounds at or above 110 dBA can cause permanent hearing loss and tinnitus instantaneously without hearing protection. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports tinnitus and hearing loss are the most common disabilities among veteran service members, with 60 percent of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan living with one or both of the conditions today.

Both the military and hearing loss communities take seriously all reports of defective hearing protection, especially given the prevalence and permanence of hearing loss and tinnitus among veterans. Without a commitment to strict product performance, user testing, and data verification standards, service members will remain at risk.

Joseph Oot is a writer with ConsumerSafety.org, an organization connecting individuals with information on developing lawsuits, court cases, and recent news affecting consumers. As a consumer advocate, Oot works with both individuals and industry professionals to share helpful information surrounding potentially harmful products.

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Hearing Loss and Disability Benefits: Who Can Qualify

By Mary Dale Walters

Acoustic trauma is a common characteristic of military life. No matter which branch served and whether in peacetime or wartime, hearing loss and tinnitus are the top two health conditions for which veterans receive disability benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Hearing impairments also may be a factor in eligibility for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits. But just who can receive benefits for these conditions?

In order to qualify for both VA disability and SSDI benefits, hearing loss must be significant: Veterans must have experienced a profound loss of their auditory capacities or be fully deaf. That means individuals who fall into the “mild to moderate” range are likely not eligible for SSDI benefits, and these may include those who rely on hearing aids to improve their hearing.

If a veteran is one of the remaining 30 percent who has experienced severe hearing loss, he or she may be eligible for SSDI benefits, provided they meet the other qualifications laid out by the Social Security Administration. On the other hand, VA disability benefits allow for lesser impact and disability ratings as low as 10 percent for service-connected conditions. That’s why more veterans may qualify for VA disability income, rather than SSDI, with a hearing-related condition.

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Like all VA disability claims submitted by veterans, the better you can demonstrate that the hearing loss or acoustic trauma incurred during your military service caused or contributed to your current hearing loss today, the more likely your VA disability claim is to be awarded.

With SSDI benefits, there is one situation in which a veteran may be highly likely to receive approval: cochlear implants. Having a cochlear implant in one or both ears automatically grants an individual eligibility for SSDI benefits for a year after the procedure. Following that one-year period, recipients take a Hearing in Noise Test (HINT). Benefits are only extended if the test is failed.

If an individual does not have a cochlear implant, he or she must pass one of two tests: audiometry, which measures the “threshold sensitivity for air conduction” in both ears; or a word recognition test, where an individual must be unable to repeat more than 40 percent of the spoken words due to their impairment.

Sometimes, even if hearing loss is not profound, it can be the basis for a successful SSDI award if combined with other qualifying conditions. Hearing loss and tinnitus can cause or aggravate other medical issues such as insomnia, depression, anxiety, and headaches. Hearing loss can also be intertwined with other vestibular disorders such as vertigo, vestibular migraines, and Ménière’s disease. For this reason, hearing loss can limit functional capacity and allow you to qualify for VA or SSDI benefits. For SSDI specifically, you will need to demonstrate you are unable to gain employment due to your condition.

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If this seems a little confusing, it can be. The issue of hearing loss and dual eligibility point to the benefit of having expert help in the disability claims process. Assistance can be vital when filing a VA disability appeal. When applying for SSDI benefits due to hearing loss, tinnitus, or related conditions, it’s critical to apply immediately—and be prepared to wait. In the meantime, put together a budget and start spending smarter to protect your financial assets.

Mary Dale Walters is a senior vice president at Allsup and editor of the ebook, “Applying for Social Security Disability Insurance: Getting It Right the First Time."

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