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Minnesota Judge Rejects 3M’s “Federal Contractor” Defense in Defective Earplug Lawsuit


In 2016, a whistleblower filed a federal lawsuit against manufacturing giant 3M, alleging the company knowingly sold defective earplugs to the U.S. government for use by members of the armed forces. 3M ultimately agreed to pay the government over $9 million to resolve the whistleblower’s claims. But thousands of service veterans and private citizens subsequently filed their own personal injury lawsuits against 3M, alleging they suffered tinnitus and hearing loss as the result of using the company’s defective earplugs.

Federal Law Does Not Preempt State-Law “Failure to Warn” Claims

Six of these lawsuits were filed in Minnesota state court. 3M attempted to remove the case from state to federal court, where it felt it would have an advantage. But on July 22, U.S. District Judge John R. Tunheim of Minneapolis granted the six plaintiffs’ request to remand the case back to state court.

The reason for the remand was quite interesting. Although the six plaintiffs based their lawsuit purely on issues of Minnesota state personal injury and product liability laws, 3M attempted to assert a federal law, the Federal Officer Removal Statute (FORS), in order to keep the cases in federal court. The FORS creates what is known as a “government contractor defense” to state personal injury lawsuits. Essentially, a contractor cannot be held liable under state product liability for design defects in “military equipment,” so long as it is built to the federal government’s specifications.

Even though the six plaintiffs were not members of the armed forces when they used 3M’s earplugs–they all used the devices as part of purely private-sector work–3M nevertheless asserted the government contractor defense still applied.

U.S. District Judge John R. Tunheim disagreed, and in a July 22 order remanded all six cases back to state court. Indeed, Tunheim previously issued a ruling this past March rejecting a similar attempt by 3M to invoke the government contractor defense in another earplug lawsuit. In the prior case, the judge explained that the defense only covered allegations regarding defects in the design of the earplugs. It did not prevent civilian plaintiffs from pursuing a “failure to warn” claim under state law. The difference, the judge explained, was that while the government had a role in approving the design of the original earplugs, it played no part in writing the “commercial earplug warning label” when the product was sold to civilians.

3M insisted the six cases were different than the earlier one in that these plaintiffs had alleged defective design under Minnesota law. Again, the judge disagreed. He noted that “failure-to-warn claims are distinct from design-defect claims” under Minnesota law. The plaintiffs need not even prove the design of the earplugs were defective to prevail on their failure-to-warn claims, so their cases could proceed in state court.

Speak with a Tennessee Defective Products Lawyer Today

If you have been injured while using any type of device or product, you may have several legal options available to you for holding the negligent manufacturer responsible. An experienced Tennessee personal injury attorney can provide you with more specific guidance based on the facts of your case. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, today to schedule a free consultation with a member of our team.




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