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Amazon Not Liable for Defective Products Under Ohio Law (1)

Oct. 1, 2020, 2:02 PM; Updated: Oct. 1, 2020, 4:24 PM

Amazon.com Inc. can’t be held liable for a teenager’s death from caffeine powder sold on its online marketplace because it didn’t exert enough control over the product under state law, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The company consequently doesn’t fit the definition of a supplier under the Ohio Product Liability Act, the state high court said in the first ruling by any state top court to address Amazon’s potential liability for products sold by third parties on its website. One justice concurred in the judgment only.

Amazon’s actions didn’t involve as much control as other conduct—the sale, distribution, lease, preparation, blending, packaging or labeling of a product—specified in the statute as bringing liability for defective products, the court said in an opinion by Justice Judith L. French.

California, Texas Cases Still Pending

The Ohio ruling follows by two weeks Amazon’s settlement of a product liability suit in Pennsylvania, which had been on track for a liability ruling from that state’s top court.

Resolution of the Ohio and Pennsylvania cases now leaves only a few cases against Amazon to be decided at the federal appellate or state supreme court level.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is teed up to hear a Texas parent’s suit over her daughter’s ingestion of a remote control battery and whether Amazon is liable as a seller under state law.

And the Ninth Circuit will hear argument about the effect of California law Oct. 20 in a case alleging a hoverboard caused a house fire.

Also under California law is a case that may soon go to the California Supreme Court after an intermediate appellate court ruled Amazon could be held liable for its role in a “Fulfillment by Amazon” sale, where it stored and shipped the item, a laptop battery.

Rhino Powder Allegedly Killed Teen

Here, Logan Stiner, an 18-year-old high school student, died in 2014 from cardiac arrhythmia and a seizure allegedly caused by Hard Rhino Pure Caffeine powder, which was sold by a third party, Tenkoris LLC.

An Ohio appeals court said Amazon wasn’t a supplier subject to liability under the law because it provided only a service and platform for the sale of the product.

The student’s father, Dennis Stiner, had told the Ohio top court that Amazon wasn’t just a “neutral platform” in the sale. It promoted the powder and played an indispensable part in the product’s sale, his brief to the state’s top court said.

Questioning at oral argument focused on the language of the state’s product liability law and on the specifics of the workout powder’s sale to a another student, who gave it to Logan.

Lack of Control Over Product

The state supreme court noted that this wasn’t a Fulfillment by Amazon case. “Tenkoris kept the powder in its own inventory, fulfilled the order, packaged it, and shipped it directly” to Logan’s friend, French said.

The “General Assembly did not intend to impose supplier liability on persons who do not exercise a requisite level of control over a product,” she said.

Here, “Amazon never had possession of the caffeine powder and never physically touched the product,” she said.

Policy objectives such as promoting safety also don’t point toward holding Amazon liable, she said. “Because Amazon does not have a relationship with the manufacturers of third-party products, Amazon lacks control over product safety.”

Justice Michael P. Donnelly concurred in the judgment, reluctantly agreeing that Amazon doesn’t fit the definition of a “supplier.”

But he disagreed with the majority’s policy argument.

The “failure to hold Amazon liable for injuries to its customers thwarts the purpose of products-liability law because it puts Amazon’s customers at risk of being injured by a seller that can easily make itself unreachable for redress,” he said. “The use of strict liability would incentivize Amazon to select and monitor reputable merchants with safer products.”

That’s something for the Legislature to address, Donnolly said.

Brian K. Balser Co. LPA and Merriman Legando Williams & Klang LLC represent Dennis Stiner. Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP and Perkins Coie LLP represent Amazon.

The case is Stiner v. Amazon.com, Inc., Ohio, No. 2019-0488, 10/1/20.

(Updated throughout with additional analysis from the opinion and context.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Martina Barash in Washington at mbarash@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Nicholas Datlowe at ndatlowe@bloomberglaw.com

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