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When a dangerous or defective product gets sold on Amazon, who is liable?

Under products liability law, anyone involved in the sale or distribution of a dangerous or defective product may be considered strictly liable for any harm that product causes. "Strict liability" basically means that the injured person need not prove the company was negligent. It is enough that they sold or distributed a faulty product that harmed someone.

Yet when dangerous or defective products have been sold on Amazon.com, the company has long resisted being held accountable. Sometimes, Amazon has argued that it is not actually a party to any sale or distribution of products. Instead, it claims it merely provides a platform for buyers and sellers to connect.

Now, a California appellate court has ruled that Amazon can be held liable for faulty products, at least when those products are sold as part of the "fulfilled by Amazon" program.

In that program, sellers ship their products to Amazon warehouses instead of directly to customers. Amazon controls the packaging and shipping of the product to the final customer. Returns are sent to Amazon, rather than the seller.

The case before the court involved a defective laptop battery which exploded and burned a customer. The battery was manufactured by Lenoge Technology (HK) Ltd. and sold through the "fulfilled by Amazon" program.

Amazon argued that it was not a seller or distributor of the battery, but merely a facilitator of the purchase. It claimed that the Communications Decency Act of 1996 shielded it from liability. That law protects websites from liability for publication of a third party's content.

Court: Communications Decency Act does not apply here

For the Communications Decency Act to apply, Amazon would have to claim that the problem arose when it published content from Lenoge. Here, however, the plaintiff's claim depended on Amazon's activities, the court said.

"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, forced Lenoge to communicate with customers through Amazon, and demanded indemnification as well as substantial fees on each purchase," said the appeals court. "Whatever 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."

Lenoge failed to defend against the suit and the trial court entered a default judgment against the company.

Although Amazon is likely to appeal this decision to the California Supreme Court, this appears to be the first time Amazon has ever been held liable for a third party's dangerous or defective product.

Injured by a product you bought on Amazon?

This ruling technically only applies to state court cases in California. However, other courts may follow the same reasoning. If you have been seriously sickened or injured by a faulty product you bought on Amazon.com, you may be able to hold Amazon responsible. Contact an attorney with experience in complex products liability law for help.

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