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Amazon can be liable for third-party sellers’ defective products, appeals court rules
An appeals court held that the company was ‘pivotal’ to the sale of a defective battery that injured a customer

By

Kim Lyons

Updated

Aug 14, 2020, 4:11pm EDT

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Amazon can be held liable for defective products sold on its Marketplace in California, an appeals court ruled Thursday, which suggests that if you buy a defective third-party product on Amazon, it might be Amazon that’s responsible. The California Fourth District Court of Appeals reversed a 2019 trial court ruling and reinstated claims from a woman who says she suffered third-degree burns when a defective laptop battery she bought from a third-party seller on Amazon caught fire.
The decision could have dire repercussions for Amazon, which has argued for years that it only serves as an intermediary between buyers and its third-party sellers, which Amazon collectively refers to as the “Amazon Marketplace” even though it’s not a distinct place on Amazon. (Third-party sellers appear in normal Amazon listings, with only a small line of text to indicate that the actual seller isn’t Amazon itself.) That stance has protected Amazon from liability for Marketplace products, that is, until now. The company is now facing several other lawsuits over defective products in other courts.
Angela Bolger says she bought a replacement laptop battery on Amazon from E-Life, a fictitious company name for Lenoge Technology Ltd., which shipped the battery to her in Amazon-branded packaging. Several months later, Bolger claims, the battery exploded. She says she was never notified of safety concerns that led to E-Life being banned from Amazon’s platform.
A lower court ruled in 2019 that Amazon was not covered under product liability laws. The trial court also ruled that the Communications Decency Act would not have shielded the company from Bolger’s claims under California state law. Bolger appealed that ruling, arguing that in California, strict liability doesn’t depend just on whether a sale was made.
An Amazon spokesperson said in an email to The Verge that the company would appeal the decision. “The court’s decision was wrongly decided and is contrary to well-established law in California and around the country that service providers are not liable for third party products they do not make or sell,” the spokesperson said.
In its ruling, the appeals court said Amazon was central to the laptop battery sale in Bolger’s case. “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. Amazon should be liable if a product on its website is defective, the court added.
Update, August 14th, 10:20AM ET: Added that Amazon declined comment.
Update August 14th 4:08PM ET: Added statement from Amazon spokesperson.

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