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3M ordered to pay $77.5 million to veteran in latest earplug trial

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FILE PHOTO: The 3M Global Headquarters in Maplewood, Minnesota
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By Brendan Pierson

(Reuters) -A jury in Pensacola, Florida federal court on Friday ordered 3M Co to pay $77.5 million to a U.S. Army veteran who said he suffered hearing damage as a result of using the company's military-issue earplugs.

The verdict for veteran James Beal is the largest yet for an individual in a sprawling litigation over the earplugs that as of May 16 included more than 290,000 claims in the Pensacola court, by far the largest mass tort litigation in U.S. history.

Beal's trial was the last of an initial set of 16 trials held to test the strength of plaintiffs' claims and facilitate settlement talks. Of those so-called bellwether trials, plaintiffs prevailed in 10, winning a total of nearly $300 million. Juries sided with 3M in the remaining six.

"It is clear 3M's defenses - whether in the courts, to investors, or the public - are unconvincing and without merit," lawyers for the plaintiffs said in a joint statement.

"We are disappointed and will appeal today's verdict," the company said in a statement. "As in previous bellwether trials, we were prevented from presenting crucial evidence to the jury, and we will address that issue, among others, in our appeal."

Beal, who served in the Army from 2005 to 2009 and in the Army Reserves until 2011, said he wore 3M's Combat Arms Earplugs version 2 while using a variety of weapons and as a result suffers from hearing loss and tinnitus.

Aearo Technologies, which 3M bought in 2008, developed the earplugs, which were issued to military service members between 2003 and 2015. Plaintiffs allege the company hid design flaws, fudged test results and failed to provide instructions for the proper use of the earplugs.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New YorkEditing by David Gregorio)