You may remember the hoverboard craze. About 5 years ago they took the United States by storm. With demand sky-high, multiple manufacturers ramped up production to cash in, they sold their products quickly, and no one asked questions. Shortly after their meteoric rise in popularity, hoverboards began earning headlines for the wrong reasons, and gained the reputation of a defective product. They began to overheat and catch fire. The defects and malfunctions were so common that hoverboards were banned in many places, ranging from college campuses, to theme parks, to public transportation.
In one instance, a fire caused by a defective hoverboard resulted in an entire home being burned to the ground. Similar stories are not uncommon; unfortunately, defective products can have destructive results. Often the only recourse is filing a lawsuit against the seller and/or manufacturer of the product. In the case of the Fox family, whose home was burned to the ground, they filed a lawsuit against Amazon. As the world’s largest retailer, it is not uncommon for these types of cases to be filed against Amazon. It is equally as uncommon for Amazon to be actually held responsible for their role in the sale of defective products.
The question at the heart of the complaints filed against Amazon is often whether Amazon is actually the ‘seller’ of the defective products. I have placed the term ‘seller’ in quotes because in different jurisdictions the term, ‘seller,’ can be defined in different ways. The responsibility for the product’s defections, and the resulting injuries rest on the ‘seller’ and/or manufacturer of the product. This raises a question of distinction that the court must decide… What constitutes a ‘seller’… and more importantly is Amazon a ‘seller’?
In Fox v. Amazon, argued before the Sixth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals, the plaintiffs brought suit against Amazon for their role in the sale of a hoverboard that overheated and sparked a conflagration that destroyed the Fox family home. The court found based on Tennessee law, that Amazon was not the seller, shielding them from any liability claims. This decision is not uncommon. Amazon often escapes liability with the defense that they simply were not the ‘seller.’ It has begun to seem like a forgone conclusion that Amazon will not be considered a ‘seller’ in the eyes of many courts. Recently a case in Pennsylvania has called this assumed conclusion into question. That case is Oberdorf v. Amazon.
In Oberdorf v. Amazon, the plaintiff brought suit against Amazon in an attempt to collect damages for an injury that occurred as a result of a defective product purchased through the online marketplace. The plaintiff’s complaint mostly concerns liability and negligence. At the district court level, a decision was made on summary judgment that Amazon was neither liable nor negligent for its role in this sale of the product in question. This opinion, however, was vacated in part after the plaintiff filed an appeal with the Third Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals. On appeal, the court found that Amazon should be considered the ‘seller,’ based on the precedent outlined in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court case, Musser v. Vilsmeier Auction Co. This case gives four criteria to help establish whether a defendant should be considered a ‘seller.’ I have provided the four criteria below.
- Whether the actor is the “only member of the marketing chain available to the injured plaintiff for redress”;
- Whether “imposition of strict liability upon the [actor] serves as an incentive to safety”;
- Whether the actor is “in a better position than the consumer to prevent the circulation of defective products”; and
- Whether “[t]he [actor] can distribute the cost of compensating for injuries resulting from defects by charging for it in his business, i.e., by adjustment of the rental terms.”
Based on the criteria listed above, the appellate court found that Amazon was the ‘seller.’ As the ‘seller,’ the appellate court held Amazon strictly liable for the personal injury that occurred as a result of the product’s defects. These conflicting decisions have led the case to where it is now. The appellate court opinion has been vacated, and the case will be considered en banc by the Third Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals.
Though Amazon.com has often been protected from liability for their role in the sale of the products posted on their marketplace, consumers have not been offered the same protection. As the world’s largest retailer, there may be some debate about whether Amazon.com is a ‘seller’ in the eyes of the law, but their size and influence is clear. If Amazon wanted to do more to protect their customers against defective products, they could. Oberdorf v. Amazon could represent a turning point where Amazon is held accountable and taken to task for not offering their customers the same protection they offer themselves.
Robin Frazer Clark is a trial lawyer who pursues justice for those who have personal injury claims as a result of being injured in motor vehicle wrecks, trucking wrecks, defective products, defective maintenance of roads, premises safety, medical malpractice and other incidents caused by the negligence of others. Ms. Clark is the 50th President of the State Bar of Georgia, a Past President of Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, a Past President of the Lawyers Club of Atlanta and has practiced law in Georgia for 31 years. She is a member of the International Society of Barristers and of the American Board of Trial Advocates. Mrs. Clark is listed as one of the Top 50 Women Trial Lawyers in Georgia and is a Georgia Super Lawyer.
Robin Frazer Clark ~ Dedicated to the Constitution’s Promise of Justice for All.