Everyone loves shopping at online marketplaces. According to a study by Civic Economics, in 2015 Amazon sold over $200 million worth of retail goods in Maine, or as many items as 143 traditional storefronts would have sold instead.
Online sellers like Amazon and eBay provide a central marketplace for literally millions of products, but when you look past the convenience, there is a potential risk involved with buying from third-party vendor sites.
When you purchase a home appliance or sports equipment from Amazon, what representations have been made as to the item’s efficacy and safety? If it turns out to be defective and an injury occurs, who is liable?
Like most states, Maine law (14 MRSA section 221) allows those injured by a defective product to file a claim against the seller instead of being forced to pursue manufacturers that may not be located within the state or even the country. The law takes the position that the seller is responsible because they took possession of the product and put it into the hands of the buyer. The law is not as clear on defective products bought through online marketplaces.
Online Marketplaces – the Legal Dilemma
Amazon and even traditional stores such as Walmart have created forums that allow manufacturers to list and sell their goods. Buyers who are dissatisfied, however, cannot return purchases to Amazon or their local Walmart. Instead, they must deal with the manufacturer or its representative, which may not be local.
One of the biggest legal questions surrounding online marketplaces is whether they are actually retailers or more like auction houses. Amazon, for example, takes the position that it is not a distributor. Instead, it presents itself as an auctioneer-type entity that only facilitates sales, without presenting any warranties about the functionality or safety of a product.
Recent Cases Involving the Virtual Marketplace
Amazon was a defendant in two recent cases involving defective products in its online marketplace.
In Oberdorf v. Amazon.com, Inc., which was heard by a Pennsylvania Middle District Court last year, the plaintiff bought a dog collar through Amazon from The Furry Gang, a pet supply company. She claimed that when her dog reached the end of its leash, the collar’s D-ring opened, causing the leash and ring to snap backward and hit her in the eye. Unable to locate a representative of the third-party seller, she sued Amazon for product liability, breach of warranty and duty, and negligence.
Addressing the role of Amazon in the transaction, the court did not regard the retail giant as a ‘seller’ under products liability law because it acted more like a classified ad service that connected buyers and sellers. The court also dismissed the claim that Amazon was responsible for content submitted by another manufacturer.
A Tennessee court took a similar stance earlier this year. The judge ruled that Amazon was not liable for property damage after a family used the site to buy a hoverboard that spontaneously exploded and burned down their house. The plaintiffs argued that Amazon did not warn consumers about the dangers associated with the product, but the court disagreed. This case is presently under appeal, but the Tennessee judge’s ruling is consistent with other court actions brought against Amazon under the same circumstances.
What’s the Bottom Line?
If you purchased a defective product and were injured as a result, be aware of the complexities of product liability law in the world of online retail. At Fales & Fales, P.A., we are watching this evolving area of the law. For compassionate and assertive legal counsel that you can trust, contact the experienced personal injury team at Fales & Fales, P.A. today.