Can you hear me now? Uh-oh

Published October 20, 2006

Tony Utegaard wears a Bluetooth wireless headset roughly 12 hours a day.

Wrapped around one ear, the device frees his hands to type, write and drive while he yaps on the phone. Like the estimated 33-million other people who bought the futuristic-looking contraption last year, Utegaard, a Clearwater construction executive, is hooked.

But is he damaging his hearing?

Lawsuits filed in Tampa federal court this week accuse manufacturers Motorola, Plantronics and Jabra of failing to warn consumers that their headsets can cause permanent hearing loss.

A test of one Motorola model produced a maximum volume of 106 decibels, enough to damage the hair cells of the inner ear even if used only five minutes a day, the suits claim.

With usage skyrocketing -- sales of Bluetooth headsets are expected to reach 60-million worldwide this year -- a growing percentage of Americans have a stake in ferreting out the truth.

Bluetooth’s short-wave technology was invented by an international consortium of companies in the late 1990s and since has been licensed for use in a multitude of products, including cars, clothing and, ironically, hearing aids.

“Millions of consumers have had their hearing put at risk by Motorola’s conduct,” said Michael Fuller Jr., a Hattiesburg, Pa., attorney and one of several lawyers representing the plaintiffs.

“I would be sickened to think that Motorola would have marketed these units without doing the appropriate safety checks.”

If the lawyers’ request for class-action status is approved, anyone who bought a Bluetooth headset in Florida since October 2002 would be allowed to join. Similar suits were filed this week in Arkansas, Illinois, Oklahoma and Tennessee, and more are expected shortly.

Representatives of Motorola and  Plantronics declined comment Friday, and an attempt to reach Jabra representatives late Friday was unsuccessful.

Concern over hearing loss isn’t confined to Bluetooth headsets. A similar class-action suit is underway against the makers of Ipod, the enormously popular portable-stereo system, and a recent study found that MP3 players used at high-volume can in fact cause damage even when used only minutes a day.

The original Sony Walkman also was dogged by audiological worries.

Fuller, the plaintiff’s attorney, said the Bluetooth headset stands out.

Because it only covers one ear, for example, ambient noise may drive headset users to jack-up the volume. The volume issue would be more tolerable if Bluetooth headset users were informed of the danger and could make an educated choice, Fuller added, but safety information included with the device doesn’t mention it. Ipod’s does.

According to the suit, a Bluetooth handset user could set the volume at 85 decibels for up to eight hours per day before causing any damage to her hearing.

Every increase of three decibels would reduce the maximum safe- listening time by half: four hours at 88 decibels, two hours at 91, and so on.

At 106 decibels, the alleged maximum volume on Bluetooth headsets, safe listening ceases after 3 or 4 minutes.

Fuller said it is not necessary to prove that the plaintiffs actually suffered hearing damage as a result of those headsets.

In fact, he said he doesn’t even know if they have experienced hearing loss. To win the lawsuits, which accuse the three headset manufacturers of false advertising and breach of warranty, Fuller said he merely needs to show that the headsets could cause damage.

His clients seek not only financial damages and restitution but to force the manufacturers to add appropriate warnings and technology improvements.

The Bluetooth lawsuits are likely to draw fire from critics of class-action complaints, who say plaintiffs’ lawyers often not only are the instigators but the primary beneficiary.

The Bluetooth complaints contain no information about the three local plaintiffs except their names: Hillsborough County residents Kyle Edwards, Steve Edwards and Gary Hamrick.

Fuller, a Plant City native, said he and law partner Jim McHugh have pursued class-action suits before, including cases filed alongside McHugh’s brother, Tim.

Tim McHugh’s Tampa law firm is among the country’s most successful in suing nursing homes over alleged abuse and neglect.

Utegaard, the Clearwater construction executive, admits his ear takes a pounding from the Bluetooth headset.

Screeching calls from fax machines often come in before he can adjust the volume control. He believes the device has caused ear infections.

But he has no intention of getting rid of it. “If I could have it implanted in my head, I would,” he said.

Times staff researchers Carolyn Edds and John Martin contributed to this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.