March 22nd, 2021
Is Amazon Responsible for Selling You a Dangerous Product?
In 2019, Amazon surpassed Walmart as the largest retailer on the planet. Amazon is responsible for nearly half of the total online commerce in the United States. With a current market cap of $1.5 trillion, Amazon’s market value exceeds the gross domestic product of the vast majority of entire nations, including countries as large as Australia and Mexico. The company is a juggernaut of unprecedented proportions. Given its tremendous resources and influence, Amazon’s preeminence in the marketplace has stimulated debate on the nature of the company’s relationship with its customers. One pressing issue is whether Amazon can be deemed responsible when a customer is harmed by a product sold through Amazon’s online platform.
In Pennsylvania, as in many other states, manufacturers and distributors of dangerous items can be held strictly liable for products that cause harm to consumers. Strict liability is a legal concept that provides injured consumers a right to claim compensation when a company produces a dangerous product. Importantly, the consumer does not need to prove the company was negligent, only that the product that injured the consumer was defective when it left the company’s control.
In the recent case of Oberdorf v. Amazon.com Inc. (2019), the Third Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Amazon would be held strictly liable for defective goods that consumers purchased through its online marketplace. Amazon contended it does not function as a “seller” under Pennsylvania’s product liability laws such that it could be held liable for the products of the many vendors that use its website. Rather, Amazon merely functions as a sort of auction house that connects third-party sellers with customers. The Third Circuit was unpersuaded by Amazon’s arguments, reasoning that Amazon regularly engages in activities necessary to the sale itself, i.e., storing, packaging, shipment and facilitating payment. To put it lightly, the Court’s decision could have dramatic effects on Amazon’s business activities both in Pennsylvania and throughout the country.
After Amazon requested a rehearing of its argument, the Third Circuit’s decision was vacated, and, thereafter, the case was referred to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to clarify the applicability of Pennsylvania’s product liability law. However, instead of litigating before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Amazon opted to settle with the plaintiffs and prevent the possibility of a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision that could require Amazon to drastically enhance its safety protocols.
At Bordas & Bordas, we advocate for people harmed by companies that prioritize profits over safety. If you have been injured by a product you purchased online, one of our attorneys would be happy to speak with you.