Florida product liability claims can be the subject of complex legal battles, often owing to the difficulty in establishing the chain of commerce.
Under Florida law, when a product has been defectively designed or manufactured or when there are label defects, several entities may be held strictly liable. Potentially liable entities include the manufacturer as well as any others allegedly involved in the design, manufacturing, or sale of the product.
As our Florida product liability lawyers can explain, the chain of commerce has been raised in a growing number of injury cases in recent years aiming to hold accountable large e-commerce retailers like Amazon. If a store like Home Depot sells you a defective chainsaw and it causes serious injury, the store can be held liable because of its role in the chain of commerce. However, e-commerce makes it a little tricky. It’s been the position of Amazon that the doctrine of strict products liability doesn’t apply because e-commerce platforms don’t distribute, manufacture, or sell many of the products on the site. Rather, it asserts it is merely “an online marketplace.” Amazon insists it should be the third-party sellers who are legally responsible for dangerous product injuries.
However, that argument was rejected in a California appellate decision last year – the first of its kind at the state appellate court level. Although that ruling isn’t precedential for Florida, it could be instructive in future cases.
The ruling is particularly noteworthy considering more than 360 million products are sold on Amazon Marketplace a year in the U.S. alone. Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported that more than 4,000 banned, unsafe and mislabeled products had been sold on the company’s platform. These products ranged from toys with choking hazards to defective motorcycle helmets. Dozens have resulted in federal lawsuits alleging serious injury and death.
Bolger v. Amazon.com LLC
The Bolger case started like so many modern transactions today do: Online.
Plaintiff purchased a laptop computer battery on Amazon.com. The third-party seller was an overseas manufacturer listed under a fictitious name. The online retailer charged the plaintiff for the purchase, retrieved the battery from its location at a warehouse operated by Amazon, prepared the product in its own branded packaging and sent it to the plaintiff.
Several months later, the battery exploded. Plaintiff was severely burned. She later sued both the manufacturer/seller and Amazon, though the third-party seller never responded. (Indeed, many sellers on the platform are ultimately found to be overseas and unknown.)
As our product liability attorneys can explain, products that are sold on Amazon fall into two basic categories: Products that Amazon itself selects, buys, distributes and sells at a price set by Amazon (comprising about 40 percent of the company’s online sales) and the second sold ostensibly by third parties who manufacture, source and set the purchase price of their products. Those companies pay a monthly fee to “the marketplace” to be able to sell there. The first category wasn’t at issue in the Bolger case, as clearly, Amazon would be the designated seller in the chain of commerce. The question is whether it is a “seller” in the case of the second category.
As the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division One noted, Amazon basically put itself between the manufacturer and the buyer in the chain of distribution of the allegedly dangerous product. It accepted possession from the manufacturer. It stored the product in its warehouse. It spent marketing dollars luring consumers like the plaintiff to its site for retail products and provided her with a product listing. It also accepted payment from her for the product and shipped it in its own packaging. It set the terms of the relationship, controlled the conditions of the offer, limited the seller’s access to the buyer’s information – and for all this sought significant fees as well as indemnification.
As the court noted, whether Amazon is titled a retailer, distributor or facilitator, “It was pivotal in bringing the product here to the consumer.” Strict liability principles apply, the court ruled, because Amazon was the direct link in the chain of distribution, serving as an intermediary (and a powerful one) between the buyer and third-party seller.
“It plays a substantial part in ensuring the products listed on its website are safe… It can and does exert pressure on upstream distributors to enhance safety, and it has the ability to adjust the cost of liability between itself and third-party sellers.”
Based on strict liability principles, the court held, Amazon should therefore be liable if a product sold on its website turns out to be defective.
Shifting Positions on Product Liability
Amazon insists it’s more like Craigslist than Home Depot, and many courts across the country have found that argument pretty compelling. In fact, the status quo in courts around the country has been that the company is not liable for dangerous products sold in its marketplace transactions.
But there is reason to suspect the Bolger case could be part of a larger legal trend.
Take the case of Oberdorf v. Amazon.com, Inc. before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In that case, a woman lost her vision in one eye after a dog leash she purchased from Amazon Marketplace broke when she took her dog for a walk. Plaintiff sued Amazon, alleging it was liable for selling the product on its platform. A Pennsylvania district court granted summary judgment to Amazon, but the federal appeals court reversed, deciding Amazon was so involved in the product purchase that it met the product liability law definition of “seller.”
If you are seriously injured in Florida by a defective or dangerous product that you purchased online, it’s important to discuss your options with an experienced product liability lawyer.
If you are injured in Fort Myers, Port Charlotte, Sarasota, Cape Coral, Naples or Key West, contact our injury attorneys at Garvin Injury Law at 800.977.7017 for a free initial consultation.
Bolger v. Amazon.com, LLC, Aug. 13, 2020, California Court of Appeals, Fourth Appellate District, Division One
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What are Tort Claims? Key West Injury Lawyer FAQ, Dec. 10, 2020, Fort Myers Product Liability Lawyer Blog