How Product Liability Is Changing with Online Retailers

December 23, 2020 Insights

When you are hurt or injured by a product you bought via an online retailer, that retailer may be legally responsible.

A California appeals court ruled this recently, provoking fresh thought about the scope of product liability when people are left injured by design or manufacturing negligence.

Product liability law, distinct from other personal injury cases, is understood to cover harm caused to people by dangerous or defective items, holding the manufacturer of those items liable. Shortcomings in manufacturing, or even marketing, are factors also leading to consumer injury.

Scenarios leading to product liability claims have changed commensurate to the ways in which consumers are exposed to defective products. For much of recent history, someone would buy an item at their local store, use as intended and still find themselves seriously sick or injured due to defects outside of their control. At that point, they pursued the product manufacturer for damages. They can also include the retailer as a respondent.

In San Antonio, Texas, two years ago, a 66-year-old man sued both Coca-Cola and a local grocery store chain after he picked up a soda bottle and it abruptly exploded, wounding him in the hand and causing permanent vision loss. While he argued that both Coca-Cola and the distributor should be accountable for designing a case that wasn’t explosion proof, the store was also argued to have been liable due to improper or negligent handling.

Online retailers like Amazon have claimed it is a stretch to suggest they should be seen as anything more than a facilitator between a customer and products sold on their platform. Service providers, they argue, are not liable for products they do not directly make or sell. But this logic is incomplete.

If you can legally argue that a “traditional” retail store is potentially liable as a third-party for products transported to it, handled by its internal workers and stocked on its shelves, Amazon and other online retailers only differ superficially. The principle distinction is that the customer does not physically turn up at an Amazon brick and mortar facility to buy the product.

The judgement stems from a case where an Amazon customer sustained severe burns when a replacement computer battery, she bought off a third-party seller on the platform burst into flames as she held the device on her lap. A lower court initially agreed with Amazon that they were a service provider and thus not liable, but the appeals judgement stated, “[w]hatever 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.”

Arguments to determine where Amazon falls along that continuum have recently been considered in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas.

This conversation is far from over, with each successive court decision bringing more clarity about the parameters of product liability.

As always, an experienced product liability lawyer like the professionals at Circeo Fannin is an invaluable resource when you have been harmed by defective items.