Court address e-retailer liability

E-commerce has rapidly changed how we purchase merchandise, especially over the last three months. Courts are beginning to address whether e-retailers are liable for merchandise sold on their websites in a product liability lawsuit.

Recently, the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Amazon was not liable under state product liability law, relied upon by federal courts, because it was not the seller of the product. The Sixth Circuit covers Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee.

This lawsuit involved the sale of an allegedly defective hoverboard, through the Amazon platform, which caused a fire that destroyed the purchaser’s family home. That product was apparently a product from a third-party vendor, W2M Trading Corp. Amazon controlled buyer communications and made payments possible under a third-party agreement with that vendor.

The court ruled that that title of the hoverboard was insufficient to determine whether Amazon was the seller of the hoverboard under Tennessee law. It found that the evidence did not conclusively prove that Amazon had sufficient control over the product’s sale to be considered as the seller of the hoverboard.

Amazon did not choose to sell the hoverboard, set its price or make representations about its safety. The court ruled that that Amazon was not liable under Tennessee’s product liability law even though Amazon advertised the product on its platform, stored and shipped it and processed payment. The purchaser’s family considered Amazon as the product’s seller.

However, the court also ruled that the plaintiffs can sue Amazon for negligent failure to provide adequate warning that hoverboard batteries posed a risk of catching fire. It concluded that Amazon assumed a duty to warn because it e-mailed customers about news reports over safety issues and offered information about lithium ion batteries and safety advice on using products that contain them.

Amazon was earlier excused from liability in other cases by a federal appeals court with jurisdiction in the southeast United States, federal courts in Chicago and San Francisco and an Ohio state appeals court.

But a full panel of a federal appeals court in Pennsylvania is reviewing a 3-judge panel decision that Amazon was liable for a faulty dog collar. Other courts in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Wisconsin found that Amazon was liable for goods sold by other parties.

Anyone injured by a product purchased on-line should seek legal representation. An attorney may be able to help in this evolving area.