Is Amazon liable for defective products sold on its site?
Angela Bolger bought a replacement laptop computer battery on Alpha XR, which was being sold by “E-Life,” a fictitious name used on Amazon by Lenoge Technology (HK) Ltd., a foreign corporation. Amazon charged Bolger for the purchase, retrieved the laptop battery from its location in an Amazon warehouse, prepared the battery for shipment in Amazon-branded packaging, and sent it to Bolger. Bolger claimed the battery exploded several months later and severely injured her.
Bolger sued Amazon and Lenoge, alleging strict products liability, among other things. Lenoge, the foreign defendant, did not appear. Amazon asked the trial court to dismiss the case against it, arguing that the doctrine of strict products liability did not apply to it because it did not distribute, manufacture, or sell the product that injured Bolger. Amazon claimed its website was an “online marketplace” and Lenoge was the product seller, not Amazon. The trial court agreed, and dismissed the case. Bolger appealed.
Products liability is the area of law where product manufacturers and distributors are held responsible for the injuries that their defective products cause. Any product may cause a product-related accident, including such items as: defective toys, clothes, equipment, tools, foods, medicines, and vehicles. If such products are defective or are inherently dangerous, they can cause injuries. If a defect in the design or manufacture of the product causes injuries while the product is being used in a reasonably foreseeable way, then the law imposes liability on the manufacturers and distributors.
Defective and dangerous products may at times be sold to the public. The fact that a defective or dangerous product ended up being sold in the market may be enough to hold the product manufacturer liable for the injuries that the product caused. This is the principle of strict liability, which holds that the manufacturer or distributor of a product is strictly liable for injuries caused by its products regardless of whether they were negligent or not. Under California law, if a product is more dangerous than it should be, or if it contains inadequate warnings, then the maker or seller of such defective product is strictly liable for any injuries that result when the product is used in a reasonably foreseeable way.
In the case against Amazon, the appellate court noted that even though Amazon was not the manufacturer, seller, or distributor of the battery that injured Bolger, Amazon placed itself between Lenoge and Bolger in the chain of distribution of the product. Amazon accepted possession of the product from Lenoge, stored it in its warehouse, attracted Bolger to the Amazon website showing the product, received her payment, and shipped the product in Amazon packaging. Amazon set the terms of its relationship with Lenoge, controlled the conditions of Lenoge’s offer for sale on Amazon, limited Lenoge’s access to Amazon’s customer information, and forced Lenoge to communicate with customers through Amazon. The appellate court concluded that whether it is a “retailer,” “distributor,” or merely “facilitator,” Amazon was pivotal in bringing the product to the consumer. But for Amazon’s own acts, Bolger would not have been injured.
Even if Amazon was not negligent, the law of strict products liability was created to protect consumers of manufactured goods in an increasingly mechanized society, where the laws on negligence may have limits. The scope of strict liability has been expanded, where necessary, to account for new “market realities” and to cover new ways of doing business.
Amazon’s direct link in the chain of distribution makes it a powerful intermediary between the third-party seller and the consumer. Amazon is the only member of the enterprise reasonably available to an injured consumer (because the manufacturer is outside the United States). Thus, strict liability laws protect consumers by ensuring that they are compensated for injuries caused by defective products.
The Law Offices of C. Joe Sayas, Jr. welcomes inquiries about this topic. All inquiries are confidential and at no-cost. You can contact the office at (818) 291-0088 or visit www.joesayaslaw.com. [For more than 25 years, C. Joe Sayas, Jr., Esq. successfully recovered wages and other monetary damages for thousands of employees and consumers. He was named Top Labor & Employment Attorney in California by the Daily Journal, consistently selected as Super Lawyer by the Los Angeles Magazine, and is a past Presidential Awardee for Outstanding Filipino Overseas.]