A product liability lawsuit filed against Amazon is headed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court after the Third Circuit Court of Appeals said it is “unable to predict” how the high court would rule in the matter.
The lawsuit seeks to hold Amazon strictly liable for injuries plaintiff Heather Oberdorf suffered in January 2015 when a retractable dog leash she purchased through the online retailer snapped and struck her in the face.
According to the lawsuit, the D-ring on the collar broke unexpectedly when the dog lunged. The leash recoiled back and hit Ms. Oberdorf in the face and eyeglasses. She is permanently blind in her left eye as a result of the injury.
A District Court found Amazon was not liable for Ms. Oberdorf’s injuries under Pennsylvania law. The court’s opinion emphasized that a third-party vendor, not Amazon, listed the defective item on Amazon’s online marketplace and shipped it directly to Ms. Oberdorf.
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case but after a rehearing could not determine whether the Restatement (Second) of Torts Section 402A, which governs consumer product liability disputes when physical injuries are involved, applies to Amazon.
“This is an issue of first impression and substantial public importance, yet we cannot discern if and how Section 402A applies to Amazon. We are, as a result, unable to predict how the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would rule in this dispute,” Chief Judge D. Brooks Smith wrote in the court’s order, according to the Legal Intelligencer.
Amazon had argued that it could not be held liable as a “seller” in this case. However, Senior Judge Jane Richards Roth, who wrote the Third Circuit’s original 2-1 majority opinion, said Amazon was in a position to prevent the circulation of defective products and imposing liability would incentivize the company to be more concerned for consumer safety. She said the facts of the case pointed more to Amazon being designated as a seller.
“Amazon’s customers are particularly vulnerable in situations like the present case,” Judge Roth wrote. She noted that neither Amazon nor the plaintiffs were able to locate the third-party vendor, which sold the defective leash under the company name “The Furry Gang.”
Amazon’s liability for third-party consumer products sold through its website has been contested in court in recent years. In addition to being the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon also serves as a portal through which third-party vendors can sell their products directly to consumers. This arrangement has opened up a floodgate of commerce through which billions of consumer products flow into U.S. homes and places of business from foreign countries.
Last month, Amazon settled a product liability lawsuit brought by a Tennessee family whose house was destroyed by a defective Chinese-made hoverboard with a lithium-ion battery that overheated and started a fire.
As in the Oberdorf case, a federal judge originally sided with Amazon in the case and dismissed the lawsuit. The family appealed their case to the Sixth Circuit, which reversed the lower court’s judgment. The appeals court acknowledged that Amazon ordinarily would not be liable for the defective device except for an email it sent to hoverboard purchasers alerting them to “safety issues” with hoverboards and other devices containing lithium-ion batteries. Thus, although Amazon knew of the safety defects, it did not recall the dangerous devices or adequately warn its customers about them.
Products Liability Law
When individuals are harmed, injured or killed by an unsafe, or defective, product, they may have a cause of action against the manufacturer, supplier, distributor or retailer of that product. This area of law is known as Product Liability. A products liability claim is usually based on a design defect, a manufacturing defect, a failure to warn or a combination of the three. Products liability litigation often involves auto products liability, where a defective auto product like a seat belt or airbag malfunctions in a crash resulting in serious injury or death; workplace products liability, where a worker’s severe on-the-job injury or death may be traced to defective or improperly guarded machinery; and consumer products like the dog leash or hoverboard mentioned in this story, as well as a host of other products like space heaters, generators, bicycle and motorcycle helmets and more.
Lawyers in our Personal Injury & Products Liability Section investigate these types of claims. For more information or to discuss a possible claim, contact Cole Portis, who is head of this Section; or Greg Allen, our Lead Products Liability Lawyer.