October 28, 2006
Written by: Stephen M. Garcia
•The Garcia Law Firm files class action against Plantronics for their marketing, manufacture, and distribution of devices known as “Bluetooth Headsets” alleging that the “Bluetooth Headsets” can not be safely utilized for normal use and cause hearing loss. (For more information visit http://www.bluetoothhearlingloss.com/ )
The Complaint alleges:
• This action arises from Defendants’ marketing, manufacture, and distribution of devices known as “Bluetooth Headsets” which permit wearers to utilize a mobile phone without holding the phone next to the face and without the necessity of wires connecting the phone to the headset.
• Plantronics has manufactured and distributed many different models of Bluetooth Headsets, including the Discovery 655 , Discovery 645 , Discovery 640 , Discovery 640E , Voyager 510 , Explorer 350 , Explorer 340 , and Explorer 330 (collectively the “Headsets”). On the packaging of these Headsets, Plantronics has made false representations, omissions and concealments to purchasing consumers in order to induce the consumers to purchase the product. Each Headset is sold with affirmative representations that it can be used for extensive time periods, yet the packaging lacks any warnings regarding the noise induced hearing loss, a condition which has no cure or treatment, which can be expected to result from use of the Headsets in most environments over that period of time.
• Use of Bluetooth headsets is becoming increasingly popular among the consuming public because of the ease and convenience associated with the technology. According to the Insight Research Corporation (“IRC”), “[n]early 65 percent of Americans, or 195 million people, are expected to be mobile phone subscribers by the close of 2005.” IRC has also reported that “[a]s users become more used to the convenience of cellular, long distance and local usage is shifting from wireline to cellular. The average wireline residential toll minutes of use (MOUs) have been dropping at a compounded rate of 15 percent since 2000, while wireless interstate MOUs per user grew at a compounded rate of nearly 40 percent during the same period. According to one FCC study, on the wireless side, the percentage of interstate residential minutes has increased from 16 percent to 26 percent of all wireless minutes.” As more and more people switch from using landlines to using mobile phones in order to accommodate their telecommunication needs, more and more consumers are spending hours per day on the mobile phone. Such increased usage is particularly dramatic with respect to individuals using a mobile phone for business purposes.
• As explained by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDOCD) www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/hearing/noise.asp), “[h]earing is a series of events in which the ear converts sound waves into electrical signals that are sent to the brain and interpreted as sound. The ear has three main parts: the outer, middle, and inner ear. Sound waves enter through the outer ear and reach the middle ear where they cause the eardrum to vibrate.” Noise induced hearing loss “can be caused by . . . repeated exposure to sounds at various loudness levels over an extended period of time.”
• “The vibrations are transmitted through three tiny bones in the middle ear, called the ossicles. These three bones are named the malleus, incus, and stapes (and are also known as the hammer, anvil, and stirrup). The eardrum and ossicles amplify the vibrations and carry them to the inner ear. The stirrup transmits the amplified vibrations through the oval window and into the fluid that fills the inner ear. The vibrations move through fluid in the snail-shaped hearing part of the inner ear (cochlea) that contains the hair cells. The fluid in the cochlea moves the top portion of the hair cells, called the hair bundle, which initiates the changes that lead to the production of nerve impulses. These nerve impulses are carried to the brain, where they are interpreted as sound. Different sounds move the hair bundles in different ways, thus allowing the brain to distinguish one sound from another, such as vowels from consonants.”
• Plaintiff is informed and believes that noise induced hearing loss is the slow loss of hearing caused by too much noise. Hearing loss happens when too much noise hurts the hair cells in the inner ear. Noise induced hearing loss is one of the most common causes of nerve deafness. Noise induced hearing loss lasts forever. There is no treatment, no medicine, no surgery, and no device which can correct hearing once damaged by noise.
• Plaintiff is informed and believes that noise induced hearing loss can happen gradually over time and does not cause pain. As such, one is not aware that noise induced hearing loss is occurring until it is too late. Because noise induced hearing loss is an insidiously developing hearing impairment, damage occurs prior to the point at which it is perceived.
• Noise induced hearing loss can also result because an individual has become accustomed to a particular sound level. As the individual gradually suffers hearing loss, in an effort to compensate for the decrease in ability to hear, the individual unwittingly increases the volume of a device in order to hear the sound produced and thereby compounds the injury.
• Another organization, Dangerous Decibels, a public health partnership for the prevention of noise induced hearing loss, advises the public that “[a] dangerous sound is anything that is 85 dB (sound pressure level – SPL) or higher.” The organization further explains that “[o]f the roughly 40 million Americans suffering from hearing loss, 10 million can be attributed to noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). NIHL can be caused by a one-time exposure to loud sound as well as by repeated exposure to sounds at various loudness levels over an extended period of time.”
• Exposure to a time weighted average decibel level by itself can cause harm. One knowledgeable organization, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), has offered the view that exposure to sound averaging at 85 decibels for more than 8 hours a day by itself presents a risk of hearing loss. According to NIOSH, each three decibel volume increase reduces the safe exposure time by half, which reflects the logarithmic nature of the decibel scale. For example, if a Headset set on the higher volume level produces decibel levels of 91 decibels, noise induced hearing loss statistically develops if the Headset is used for more than two hours a day. At 94 decibels, noise induced hearing loss statistically develops if the Headset is used for more than one hour a day. At 102 decibels, irreversible damage statistically develops if the Headset is used for more than 7 ½ minutes per day.
• Plantronics’ Headsets have volume controls which produce sounds exceeding 85 decibels, with sound often peaking in excess of 100 decibels. According to the standards promulgated by such organizations as NIOSH and Dangerous Decibels, a consumer statistically develops NIHL if exposed to such sounds for less than 15 minutes a day. Further, the consumer cannot determine, without resorting to scientific testing, the decibel level of the sound being emitted from the Headset.
• The packaging on the Headsets advises that the Headsets can be used for “extended talk time.” The various models indicate talk time of 3 hours, 6 hours, 8 hours, 9 hours, 10 hours, and even 15 hours. However, the representations as to permissible talk times are false, as a consumer cannot safely use the Headsets for the talk times represented. Plaintiffs and the Class members relied upon these representations made by Defendants in determining whether to purchase the Headsets at the high price charged for the devices.
• Millions of consumers have had their hearing put at risk by Plantronics’ conduct. Plaintiff and the class members detrimentally relied upon the affirmative misrepresentations, omissions and concealments made by Defendants regarding the permissible use of the product. Plaintiff and the class members further relied upon Defendants’ skill and judgment to furnish suitable goods which would not cause harm to the consumer, and to warn the consumer of any information known by Defendants, or which should reasonably have been known by Defendants, relating to the safe operation of the product.
• Defendants sold the Headsets with a booklet setting forth “important safety and operational information” relating to use of the Headsets. However, Defendants omitted and concealed from consumers any safety information pertaining to the Headsets’ propensity for causing noise induced hearing loss. Defendants also omitted and concealed from the consuming public information advising that the Headsets produced noise at decibel levels exceeding 85 db, and even exceeding 100 db.
• The same misrepresentations, omissions and concealments were made in the product packaging to each consumer who purchased the product. Plaintiff and the class members relied upon the misrepresentations, omissions and concealments in purchasing the Headsets.
• Because the Headset transmits sound to only one ear, extraneous sound from the environment is simultaneously being heard by the Headset user from the other ear. Such ambient sound makes it more difficult for the Headset user to isolate and hear the sound being transmitted over the Headset. The Headset user is thus required to maximize the volume of the Headset in order to overcome the extraneous noise being heard in the other ear.
• Plaintiff purchased and used a Headset manufactured and distributed by Defendants. Plaintiff was not aware that the Headset was emitting sounds in excess of safe decibel levels which thereby required the time the product could safely be used to be greatly minimized. Plaintiff would not have purchased the Headset, including at the price charged, if Defendants had disclosed the truth.
• The design, manufacture, distribution and sale by Defendants of the Headsets without adequate warning labels that the Headsets produce decibel levels harmful to the human ear constitutes deceptive and unlawful business practices. As a result of Defendants’ conduct, numerous consumers have paid for an unsafe product which they falsely were led to believe could be safely used for extended periods of time.
• Despite the information provided by Plantronics in its “safety booklet,” Plantronics fails to divulge the decibel output of the device and the potential for noise induced hearing loss if the Headset is used at a loud setting for more than a safe number of hours per day. The exclusion of such information from the safety information in the booklet wrongly implies that the Headset is safe at its maximum volume for the hours of talk time permitted by the Headset. The safety book falsely represents to consumers that the “important” information provided in the booklet permits the “safe and efficient operation” of the Headset. This representation is false, as important safety information has been excluded from the booklet. Plaintiffs and the Class members relied upon such misrepresentations, omissions and concealments to their detriment.
• Plantronics affirmatively represented that the Headsets are warranted to be free from “defects in materials and workmanship.” This representation was and is false. The Headsets are defective and cannot safely be used for their intended purpose. The materials and workmanship of the product cause the product to produce unsafe decibel levels under normal consumer usage.
• Plaintiff is informed and believes that the Headsets can be used to listen to music or television downloaded onto mobile phones. Because of these new uses for the mobile phone, the time over which the Headsets are used is increased significantly. The decibel levels of the music or television also exceeds 85 decibel levels, and may even reach levels capable of producing hearing loss from a single exposure to the load sound emitted.
• Other manufacturers of music listening devices, such as Apple with respect to its iPod, include a warning so that consumers are aware of the potential for hearing damage. For example, the iPod is sold with the following warning:
Avoid Hearing Damage
Warning: Permanent hearing loss may occur if earphones or headphones are used at high volume. You can adapt over time to a higher volume of sound, which may sound normal but can be damaging to your hearing. Set your iPod’s volume to a safe level before that happens. If you experience ringing in your ears, reduce the volume or discontinue use of your iPod.
The Headsets manufactured, distributed and sold by Defendants, which contain no such warnings, thus fail to follow industry standards for music listening devices.
• Plaintiff seeks, on behalf of himself and the Class as defined below, injunctive relief, product repair, restitution, damages, and all other appropriate relief. Defendants misrepresented the time period over which consumers could safely use the Headsets. In marketing and advertising the Headsets, Defendants also concealed and omitted material information as to the capacity for the Headsets to cause hearing loss. Plaintiff and the Class members thus: (1) cannot safely use the Headsets for the length of time for which the Headsets were advertised as usable; or (2) must turn the volume of the Headsets so low as to render the Headsets unusable in most environments, thereby drastically limiting and/or eliminating the usability of the product. Had Plaintiff and the Class they seek to represent known the true facts, they would not have purchased them or would have purchased them only at a lesser price. Plaintiff, and the Class Members, lost money as a result of the misrepresentations, omissions and concealments by Defendants. In doing the acts herein alleged and purposefully risking the health and safety of millions of consumers in order to increase sales and profits, Defendants, and each of them, acted with oppression, fraud or malice, and Plaintiff and the Class members are entitled to punitive damages.