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Verdicts & Settlements

Appeals Court Rules Against Amazon in Product Liability Lawsuit

— July 9, 2019

Amazon has been blamed for third-party product failures and injuries before–but this is the first time a court has held the company accountable for its vendors.

In a decision that could have far-reaching implications, a federal appeals court ruled on behalf of a woman bought a defective dog leash off Amazon.

The suit, says, was filed by Heather Oberdorf in 2016. The Pennsylvania woman had bought a retractable dog leash off Amazon. But when the cord unexpectedly snapped and recoiled, part of the leash hit Oberdorf in the face, leaving her blind in one eye.

While Oberdorf had purchased the product off Amazon, it was marketed and shipped by a third-party vendor called The Furry Gang.

According to ARS Technica, the Gang effectively “disappeared” after Oberdorf’s injury. Neither she nor Amazon were able to contact or even locate a company representative.

Public domain image of logo via Commons

Unable to hold the merchant accountable, Oberdorf said that Amazon should be culpable for damages—in large part because it allowed a third-party to sell a potentially dangerous product without warning consumers of its potential dangers.

Amazon repeatedly claimed legal immunity, citing 1996 Communications Decency Act. The act, notes, provides “crucial protection to online platforms that don’t directly publish content but, rather, allow users to create, publish, and share on their own.”

Last week, though, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia struck down Amazon’s argument in a 2-1 decision.

“Amazon generally takes no precautions to ensure that third-party vendors are in good standing,” the appeals panel observed, ordering the case back to a lower court.

The judges also said that the Communications Decency Act has little to do with an e-commerce company like Amazon.

“Amazon’s involvement in transactions extends beyond a mere editorial function; it plays a large role in the actual sales process,” Judge Jane Richards Roth wrote in the majority opinion. “To the extend that Oberdorf’s negligence and strict liability claims rely on Amazon’s role as an actor in the sales process, they are not barred by the CDA.”

The ruling, notes ARS Technica, poses an unexpected obstacle for Amazon. While the company has faced similar lawsuits in the past, it’s always come out on top. In fact, federal appeals courts have sided with Amazon twice in the past two months, holding it not liable for defective products sold by third-party merchants.

In one instance, recounted by ARS, a homeowner bought a battery-powered headlamp. But the batteries grievously malfunctioned, starting a fire that burned the entire house to the ground.

After the homeowner’s insurer brought Amazon to court, a Maryland appeals court determined that Amazon can be brought to charge under the CDA but couldn’t be considered the product’s “seller” and was therefore immune under state law.


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