More twists and turns in Amazon’s product liability cases

Amazon is facing several lawsuits in the US claiming it is liable for counterfeit goods sold on its platform, and recent verdicts aren’t going its way.

Last month, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia reversed a lower court ruling that Amazon cannot be held liable as a seller of products from third-party vendors, bucking the trend seen in other court cases.

In that case – brought on behalf of Pennsylvania woman Heather Oberdorf who claims she was blinded in one eye by a faulty retractable dog leash – the judge ruled that Amazon was liable in part because its business model allowed third-party vendors to conceal themselves from consumers.

The seller of the leash – The Furry Gang – disappeared from Amazon after the 2016 incident and no representative has been located.

Oberdorf also tested the limits of immunity invoked by online retailers under the Communications Decency Act (CDA), under which they can claim to operate as publishers of third-party content rather than sellers. It reversed the lower court decision barring strict liability and negligence claims saying its involvement went beyond editorial functions.

Later in July, a Wisconsin district court ruled that Amazon should be considered a seller as a result of its “active participation in the sale” of a bathtub faucet adapter that malfunctioned and caused flooding to the home of Luke Cain.

And just last week, an Illinois judge ruled that Amazon has to face claims of misrepresentation and consumer fraud in a long-running case brought against the company by the insurer of a family whose home was severely damaged by a defective battery in a hoverboard.

Dan and Danielle Perper purchased the hoverboard in 2015 via a listing on Amazon’s website that said it had a genuine Samsung battery pack, when in fact it was fitted with a Chinese-made counterfeit that caught fire. Court document suggest Amazon was aware of at least nine fires caused by hoverboards sold on its site.

Amazon moved to dismiss charges of negligent failure to warn, negligent misrepresentation and violation of Illinois consumer fraud laws, succeeding on the first charge but failing on the other two. The company didn’t attempt to strike a product liability claim.

Meanwhile, in the latest development, a New Jersey court said Amazon should be held liable in another lawsuit involving a defective hoverboard that cited the Oberdorf appeal judgment – even though the online retail giant was granted a petition for a re-hearing the effectively vacated that opinion on August 23.

While it remains to be seen whether any of these cases will have a bearing on future product liability cases concerning Amazon or other online marketplaces, or indeed state reforms of product liability law, it’s notable that they come after a protracted series of victories for the retailer.

At the very least, Amazon is no longer looking quite so invulnerable on the product liability issue.

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