For team leader Andrew M. Del Gaudio and his fellow military veterans at the Aylstock, Witkin, Kreis & Overholtz law firm, their mission is to take care of men and women like them and often people with whom they served.
“We’re still fighting,” said Del Gaudio, a member of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties’ Military Order of the Purple Heart, Chapter 566. “We can do this for them. They are, in fact, our mission.”
In July 2018, the Department of Justice announced that 3M Company headquartered in St. Paul, Minn., had agreed to pay $9.1 million to resolve allegations that it knowingly sold the dual-ended Combat Arms Earplugs to the United States military from 2003-2015 without disclosing defects that hampered their effectiveness.
In the lawsuit brought under the False Claims Act, the federal government had alleged that the company covered up the fact that the dual-ended earplugs could slightly loosen, allowing hearing damage to occur. The settlement did nothing for the thousands of service members who were supplied the 3M Combat Arms Earplugs for hearing protection from close range firearms and other loud impact noises.
Law firms around the country began to file lawsuits against 3M, alleging that the company designed the earplugs in a defective manner and failed to warn users of the defect or to provide proper instructions for their use. Their clients reported hearing loss, tinnitus, permanent hearing damage and deafness believed to be caused by the defective earplugs.
In April 2019, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation centralized and transferred all the 3M Combat Arms Earplug Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 2885, to federal court in the Northern District of Florida in Pensacola before Judge M. Casey Rodgers. The following month, Judge Rodgers selected the leadership for the plaintiffs in the 3M Combat Arms Earplugs MDL.
Judge Rodgers named Bryan Aylstock of Aylstock, Witkin, Kreis & Overholtz Lead Counsel. Local attorneys Brian Barr of Levin Papantonio and Michael Burns of Mostyn Law were named Co-Liaison Counsel.
According to Aylstock’s co-founding partner Doug Kreis, the firm’s interest in the 3M litigation came naturally because of his HR director Donna Law and the team of veterans she has hired since joining the firm in 2012.
“Shortly after Donna came aboard as our HR, we started hiring service members,” said Kreis. “And we just really lucked into a couple of really great teammates that came in from the local community that were Navy and Air Force. Today, we’re up to about 24 military veterans, and it continues to grow.”
When the 3M settlement was announced, the firm called together its military veteran employees. Kreis explained, “I got feedback from our staff regarding their hearing loss, their use of this product and what they were told in terms of how to use it.”
He continued, “We understood immediately after getting feedback from our people in-house that the effect of having poor ear protection in the military context is devastating. And so, immediately, we got with Donna and other teammates, and we put an all-points bulletin out to get as many service members from the local community as we could from all branches. And we’ve been so fortunate to have put together the team that we have.”
Helping Fellow Veterans
On a recent Thursday, Kreis had eight of his team meet with Inweekly to discuss their work. As Kreis had mentioned, Donna Law has handled HR for the firm for eight years.
“Prior to that, I was in the military for four years active, two years national guard, United States Army military intelligence,” Law shared. “The reason why I chose to come to work for the firm is because when you’re in the military, you rely on the things that are issued to you. So if they fail, why did they fail? And who’s responsible for that? And I have a passion for helping people and holding people accountable for their actions. And so that’s why I’m here.”
Marine Corps veteran Robert Williams said, “I’ll say the most important thing I love about working in the 3M case here is it helps me help my other fellow veterans.”
He continued, “I’ve talked to tons of guys with PTSD and depression. They really didn’t even want to do this. It gives them flashbacks, and just to be able to sit down and have a conversation with someone whose been through what you’ve been through really helps me out, and it also helps them out, so I just love giving back.”
“I did four years as an Army CBRN officer, which is chemical biological, radiological, nuclear,” said Michael Wells with a smile. “Sounds super fancy. It’s just a lot of like testing.”
Wells remembered members of the service talking about the 3M case when he was in the Army.
“We’re all talking about how bad everybody’s hearing is and all the problems that go along with it,” he said. “So immediately, I knew it was something that I wanted to get into. I started on the 3M team and then have since migrated over to the anti-terrorism team where I deal with a lot of guys that I worked with in the military, a bunch of guys that had some really terrible experiences. It’s nice to help them through this stuff.”
Air Force veteran Jennifer Lose works in the communications department.
“We’re pretty much the first ones that talk to the majority of our clients, especially when it comes to the military side with 3M and anti-terrorism,” Lose said. “A lot of people have a hard time trying to figure out the right way to ask these veterans questions because of what they’ve been through.”
She continued, “So it’s one thing that I’ve kind of been striving to do better—trying to find the right way to talk to these people and get their information so that we can help them.”
Bradley Ermi spent six years in the Air Force as a crew chief on fighter jets. He and Marine Corps infantry veteran Dustin Turner help the team and give input on what would be best questions for the veterans to answer.
“How we could help them and how they would understand the terminology, because a lot of the terms are very confusing,” said Ermi. “Being able to help with the questionnaires has made it a lot easier for us to communicate with the veterans. And they’re not so frustrated because a lot of them have PTSD and other things.”
Michelle Press, a Coast Guard reservist, deals with clients referred by other law firms. She said, “I haven’t been on other legal teams here, but this one it seems like it’s more of a friendly relationship with the clients because we can talk the language and can understand what they’ve been going through.”
“I like the way the firms also set up different ways for you to flag a case,” Press shared. “If something is going on with that person, like there’s a gentleman that only wants to talk to so and so every time he calls, so we can flag the case and identify that.”
Press and the team strive to help their fellow veterans through the process.
“We’ve had a couple of people that, because of the PTSD, they get frustrated by the text or just trying to complete the paperwork,” she said. “But if you can actually talk to them and say, okay, you don’t have to do it by yourself, I’ll walk you through it over the phone—that has really calmed a lot of people down. And just knowing that we have different avenues for them to complete this process is really helpful.”
The Human Connection
The firm has also filed lawsuits against Iran on behalf of soldiers and their families for life-altering injuries or deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan caused by advanced weaponry that was supplied by Iran.
“The Anti-Terrorism Act defined certain battles where if a soldier was injured by, for example, an IED or a mortar or you can establish that that person was shot by a sniper who was trained by groups backed by Iranian money, those soldiers meet the initial qualifications for having a claim that is brought in the federal court in D.C.,” explained Kreis.
If the lawsuit is successful, the soldiers and their families are compensated from the United States Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund, which was established by banks that participated or facilitated money laundering from Iran to terrorist organizations that bought weaponry and munitions to carry out terrorist attacks on American service members.
“The soldiers who come to us have very significant injuries,” said Kreis. “These are individuals that were in the zone of danger, near or right under an IED—people with lost limbs, broken backs, paraplegics and quads. We also represent families of deceased service members.”
The anti-terrorism lawsuits are time-sensitive, according to Kreis. He said, “The Congressional Act that requires the six banks to fund annually sunsets in 2026, and so the urgent situation we find ourselves in today is that it takes several years to bring this case and we are up against 2026 … sounds like a lot of time, but it’s only six more years.”
Kreis added, “We don’t have a lot of time because it’s a tremendous effort to do all the fact-finding.”
Retired Lt. Colonel Del Gaudio, USMC, handles the Gold Star family cases on the anti-terrorism side. Del Gaudio is the former Operations Officer of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade and served in combat in Ramadi, Iraq. For his actions, he was awarded the Bronze Star with Combat “V” and the Purple Heart. Gold Star families are the immediate family members of a fallen service member who died while serving in a time of conflict.
“With our Gold Star families, it is a very, very different dynamic because every time you talk to these folks, you are going to elicit taking them right back to the day they got handed a folded flag,” said Del Gaudio. “Often, I’ll make contact with them via text or by phone, and then I’m going to go see them personally because you want to talk about that which is most personal where they’re going to be comfortable.”
He continued, “You want to talk to them about not only their son or their daughter’s sacrifice but relate to them in a way that they know that you know what you’re talking about.”
According to Del Gaudio, it usually doesn’t take much time to find a connection. He might know the Marine’s captain or lieutenant or where they served. He said, “It’s that human connection that allows us to help them—not only helping them with the lawsuit but also helping them get to the point that they can even talk about what happened. So there’s a certain cathartic aspect for not only them but for us as well.”
He added, “We have some way that we can talk to them—being able to make that connection and to use the relationships that we’ve developed over a course of years to get to the point that we can have a discussion with them about that. It’s invaluable for everybody.”
Williams reiterated the point about the value of having a team comprised of service members from the military branches. “We’ve been through what you’ve been so there’s no need to feel and know that pressure because by being able to relate to them on a fellow brother and sister level,” he said about the firm’s clients. “It makes things just a lot easier to know that someone cares about you, and we’re here for you.”
He added, “Some people after they get out the Marine Corps, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, they bottle a lot of things in, and if that bottle doesn’t open to release that pressure, things can go wrong. And I think there’s been plenty of phone calls that have helped a lot of people out. So we care.”