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A California court of appeals ruling may soon make it harder for Amazon to absolve itself of responsibility for unsafe products sold on its platform.
On Thursday, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in California ruled that Amazon could be held liable for damages caused by a damaged replacement laptop battery that caught fire and gave a woman a third-degree burn. The woman, Angela Bolger, claims she bought the laptop battery from a third-party vendor, Lenoge Technology HK Ltd., in the Amazon marketplace.
The ruling represents a major blow to Amazon, which for years has struggled with lawsuits trying to hold the company liable for faulty products sold through its site that cause damage and property damage.
“Consumers across the country will feel the impact of this,”; said Jeremy Robinson, a Bolger lawyer.
Representatives from Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Amazon’s prolific market, which expects millions of third-party sellers, now accounts for approximately 60% of the e-commerce company’s sales. While the market has helped Amazon bring in record revenue, it has also tried to host counterfeit, unsecured and even expired goods. The company has previously said it invests hundreds of millions of dollars a year to ensure products sold are safe and consistent.
Amazon has long maintained it is the only conduit between buyers and sellers in its market and that it is not involved in assisting or distributing products sold by third-party sellers, removing it from liability. It has been a successful defense for Amazon in the past, including in a 2018 case involving the purchase of a damaged hoverboard that exploded and burned the home of an Amazon buyer in Tennessee.
The company still faces several ongoing product liability cases in state and federal courts across the country.
In Bolger’s case, the court ruled that Amazon placed itself in the “distribution chain” of the damaged laptop battery by, among other things, storing the product in its warehouses, receiving payment and sending the product, and determining “the terms of its relationship” with the seller to the third party and seeking “substantial fees for each purchase.”
“Any term we use to describe Amazon’s role, be it ‘retailer’, ‘distributor’, or simply ‘facilitator’, was important in bringing the product here to the consumer,” the court said. “According to the established principles of strict liability, Amazon must be held liable if a product sold through its website turns out to be defective.”
The court said Amazon also could not be protected from liability through section 230 of the Communication Determination Act, a 1990s law that protects online platforms from being held liable for content their users post on their sites.
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