PRODUCT LIABILITY CLIENT ALERT: Pennsylvania Federal Court Finds Amazon Not Liable for Third-Party Vendor’s Product

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On December 21, 2017, the Pennsylvania Federal Court in Oberdorf v. Amazon, No. 4:16-CV-01127, (M.D. Pa. 2017) addressed whether Amazon, under Pennsylvania’s products liability law, should be considered the “seller” of a defective dog leash which allegedly partially blinded Plaintiff Heather Oberdorf.  

By way of background, in addition to selling goods directly to consumers, Amazon.com also serves as a conduit through which third-party vendors may independently offer products for sale. This service is known as the “Amazon Marketplace.”  Unlike when a product is shipped or fulfilled directly by Amazon, consumers that purchase products from an identified third party on the Amazon website are obtaining those products via Amazon Marketplace.  To be clear, Amazon does retain some control over the third-party vendors that utilize Amazon Marketplace, i.e. the right to edit content and to impose rules about shipping and returns; but Amazon does not decide what products will be sold or play any role in the actual shipping or handling of the products. 

On December 2, 2014, Heather Oberdorf purchased a retractable dog leash via Amazon Marketplace from a third-party vendor called “The Furry Gang.” Subsequently, on January 12, 2015, Mrs. Oberdorf sustained a left-eye injury while walking her dog, when the leash allegedly malfunctioned, snapped backwards and hit Mrs. Oberdorf in the face, leaving her with permanent loss of vision.  After the incident, Mrs. Oberdorf was unable to contact The Furry Gang or the leash manufacturer.  As a result of this inability, the Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against Amazon only alleging strict products liability, breach of warranty, negligent misrepresentation and negligence.  Amazon moved for summary judgment and the Court granted the Motion thereby dismissing all claims asserted against Amazon.

In reaching the decision, the Court analyzed Pennsylvania’s strict products liability law, and specifically whether Amazon should be considered a “seller” for the purposes of Section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts.  Of note, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has not yet issued a ruling regarding online sales listing services, like Amazon Marketplace, and whether they would be considered “sellers” under 402A; as such, U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Brann stated that he would need to “predict how [the Pennsylvania Supreme Court] would rule on the question.”   

To assist in the analysis, Judge Brann looked toward the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Musser v. Vilsmeier Auction Co., Inc., 522 Pa. 367 (1989), in which it was decided that an auctioneer is not a “seller” for purposes of 402A. The Musser Court stated that the auction was a “means of marketing,” while “[t]he fact of marketing was the act of the seller who chose the products and exposed them for sale by means of that auction.” The auction company merely provided a market as the agent of the seller and had no role in the selection of the goods to be sold.

In the Oberdorf matter, Judge Brann adopted the same logic, relating Amazon to an auction company that merely provides the market, as opposed to being a “seller.” Specifically, Judge Brann likened Amazon Marketplace to “a sort of newspaper classified ad section, connecting potential customers with eager sellers in an efficient, modern, streamlined manner.”    He further noted that “[l]ike an auctioneer, Amazon is merely a third-party vendor’s ‘means of marketing,’ since third-party vendors - not Amazon -‘choose the products and expose [] them for sale by means of’ the Marketplace.”  He reasoned that since Amazon has “no role in the selection of goods to be sold,” it also does not have any “direct impact upon the manufacture of products sold by the third-party vendors.”  Judge Brann noted due to the “enormous number goods” sold by third-party vendors on Amazon Marketplace, Amazon is “not equipped to pass upon the quality of the myriad of products” sold in this forum. Therefore, Amazon should not be held liable under the strict products liability theory. 

Plaintiffs also asserted a negligence claim against Amazon, arguing that Amazon failed to provide adequate safety warnings.  In response, Amazon argued that the Plaintiffs attempted to treat Amazon “as the publisher or speaker” of information that was actually provided by the third-party vendor, The Furry Group.  In granting summary judgment for Amazon, the Court agreed.  Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) no provider or user of an interactive computer service should be treated as the publisher or speaker of content provided by another. The Court reasoned that Amazon cannot be held liable for information that the vendors provide, citing a recent decision, Jane Doe No. 1 v. Backpage.com LLC, 817 F.3d 12, 19 (1st Cir. 2016), in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit dismissed a case brought by three sex trafficking victims against an online classified ad website, alleging that they were trafficked through ads listed on the website by third parties.

Judge Brann also granted summary judgment in Amazon’s favor against Plaintiff’s breach of warranty and misrepresentation because Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate evidence supporting these claims. Specifically, the Plaintiffs did not address these arguments in their opposition, thus the Court presumed that they abandoned those claims.

It is anticipated that an appeal may be filed by the Oberdorf Plaintiffs.  We will continue to monitor this issue and will update as information is obtained, as this decision will likely have implications for not only Amazon but also other online retailers that market and sell third-party products through their websites. 

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