The Ohio Supreme Court (“OSC”) ruled earlier this month that Amazon.com Inc. (“Amazon”) cannot be held liable for the death of a teenager who was killed after consuming pure caffeine powder sold by one of the company’s vendors. Because Amazon did not have control over the product, it was not a “supplier” under the state’s products liability and, therefore, not responsible, according to the OSC’s ruling. The Court noted in its October 1 decision that Amazon never had possession of the powder and never physically touched the product. Instead the vendor, Tenkoris, did not take part in a “fulfillment by Amazon” program. In this program, Amazon stores and packages its vendors’ products and ships the products to its buyers.
The product, Hard Rhino Pure Caffeine Powder, was sold by Tenkoris LLC through a storefront called TheBulkSource. Under an agreement with Hard Rhino signed by Tenkoris, it was required to source, sell, fulfill, ship, and deliver the product to the consumer. The teenager, whose friend had purchased the product after searching “pre workout” on Amazon, died at age 18 in 2014 after ingesting the powder. The deceased teenager’s father filed suit under the Ohio Products Liability Act (“OPLA”). Under the OPLA, a supplier is liable for a defective product when it “sells, distributes, leases, prepares, blends, packages, labels, or otherwise participates in the placing of a product in the stream of commerce.” The OSC held that “otherwise participates” must be read in conjunction with the preceding list, which all involve some act of control over the product or the preparation of the product. Thus, Amazon was not a “supplier” as defined in the OPLA. The case is Stiner v. Amazon, Inc., Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-4632.
Almost 60% of all physical goods that are sold on Amazon’s e-commerce marketplace platform originate from third-party vendors. While Amazon has been able to clearly profit from its third-party vendors, the company has been able to largely shield itself from the risk and liabilities of its vendors.
The recent OSC decision follows similar suits filed in New Jersey and Tennessee. When the batteries in two hoverboards bought online through Amazon from a merchant burst into flames while charging in a man’s Arizona home, the District of Arizona did not find liability for Amazon under state law. Likewise, when a headlamp purchased on Amazon allegedly caused a fire that burned down a couple’s home in Maryland, the retail e-commerce giant was not held responsible for damages. In all three cases–Ohio, Arizona, and Maryland–the decisions were based on state law.
The OSC decision differed from a California appellate decision in August finding that Amazon could be held strictly liable for harm suffered when a battery exploded. That case, however, had different facts. The vendor did participate in the “fulfillment by Amazon” program. In a handful of other cases, however, including those in Texas, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania–the result has been liability for the e-commerce retail giant.
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