Is Amazon liable for defective products sold on its site?

Under the law of product liability, anyone in the chain of commerce may be held liable for a defective product that injures someone. That means not only the manufacturer of the defective product but also the distributer, retailer and anyone else involved in the sale.

Product injuries are covered by a theory called “strict liability.” That means that the manufacturer, distributer or retailer doesn’t have to be negligent to be liable. Anyone who puts a dangerous or defective product on the market may be held strictly liable without any showing of negligence.

Does that include Amazon.com? People injured by dangerous products have tried to sue Amazon in the past, but Amazon has offered up what seemed to be a powerful defense.

Amazon claims that it is not in the business of selling products — at least those sold on its site by “third party” vendors. All Amazon does is provide a platform where buyers and sellers can connect.

Sometimes, Amazon sellers aren’t third parties

This defense may be in jeopardy, based on a recent appeals court case from California. The case involved a laptop battery that exploded and burned a customer. That customer tried to sue Amazon for damages in addition to suing the “third party” retailer.

Amazon defended itself by saying that seller of the battery, Lenoge Technology (HK) Ltd., should be the company held liable because it sold the battery directly to the customer, albeit using Amazon’s sales platform. (Lenoge did not try to defend itself.)

But Lenoge was not just any seller who happened to use Amazon’s platform. It was part of the “fulfilled by Amazon” program. In that program, the seller of a product delivers it to an Amazon warehouse instead of to the ultimate customer. Amazon ships the product to the customer. Amazon controls the packaging. Returns are done thorough Amazon. Customer communication is done through Amazon. All this is done in exchange for substantial fees.

Therefore, the California court determined that Amazon was deeply involved in the sale and distribution process.

“Whatever term we use to describe Amazon’s role, be it ‘retailer,’ ‘distributor’ or merely ‘facilitator,’ it was pivotal in bringing the product here to the consumer,” the court wrote.

That was enough to make Amazon liable for injuries caused by the product. Amazon is expected to appeal the ruling.

This ruling could be big

This appears to be the first time any court in the U.S. has held Amazon liable for products sold by others on its website, although only those products sold through the “fulfilled by Amazon” program.

Although the ruling only applies in California, its reasoning seems sound. Courts in Alabama and around the country could adopt that reasoning and hold Amazon liable for other product defects that injure customers.

If Amazon begins to be held responsible for defective products sold on its site, it may be more careful about what companies are allowed to sell on Amazon.com. That could reduce the overall number of dangerous or defective products sold on the site and in the U.S. generally.

Have you been injured by a dangerous or defective consumer product? If so, discuss your situation with an attorney experienced in product liability law.

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