A state appeals court ruled Thursday that Amazon can be held strictly liable in California for defective products sold on its virtual marketplace through third-party vendors.
It thus overturned a lower court’s decision that the company was not liable when a laptop battery sold to a San Diego woman exploded, causing third-degree burns.
Amazon argued it was not liable for the injuries Angela Bolger suffered in 2016 because it did not distribute, manufacture or sell the product and operated more as a service provider.
After Bolger filed suit in January 2017, a lower court ruled in Amazon’s favor last year, but a three-justice panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal reversed the decision on Thursday.
The appeals court ruled that despite the fact that a third-party vendor — Lenoge, also known as E-Life — sold the battery, Amazon controlled various aspects of the transaction, including marketing the product, billing Bolger and shipping it to her in Amazon-branded packaging.
“But for Amazon’s own acts, Bolger would not have been injured. Amazon’s own acts, and its control over the product in question, form the basis for its liability,” the opinion reads. “Nothing aside from Amazon’s own choices required it to allow Lenoge to offer its product for sale, to store Lenoge’s product at its warehouse, to accept Bolger’s order, or to ship the product to her. It made these choices for its own commercial purposes. It should share in the consequences.”
Amazon could not immediately be reached for comment regarding whether it would appeal the decision.
One of Bolger’s attorneys, Jeremy Robinson, said: “It is impossible to overstate the magnitude of this ruling. Consumers across the nation will feel the impact of this.”
According to her Facebook page, Bolger studied molecular biology and biochemistry at San Diego State University and works at Naval Medical Center San Diego.
On LinkedIn, Bolger labels herself a clinical research associate with the Navy. She also lists having a Emergency Medical Technician license and being certified as a personal trainer.
Bolger’s suit named Amazon and several other companies allegedly involved in the design, manufacture, distribution or sale of the battery as defendants.
“Eventually Bolger added Lenoge as a defendant as well,” the appeals court said. “She served Lenoge with her complaint, but it did not appear. The trial court entered its default.”
Another defendant, Herocell Inc., was also served and defaulted. Yet another defendant was Shenzhen Uni-Sun Electronics Co. of the People’s Republic of China.
“Bolger initiated service of process but was informed it could take two to three years to complete,” the court said.
Soon after Bolger filed her complaint, Amazon “suppressed” the listing for the battery, meaning it could no longer be offered for sale on Amazon.
Three months later, Amazon sent Bolger an email warning her that Amazon had learned that the Lenoge replacement battery “may present a fire hazard or not perform as expected[.]”
“If you still have this product, we strongly recommend that you stop using the item
immediately,” Amazon told her, advising that she dispose of the battery at a recycling center or waste disposal facility.
Amazon credited her Amazon account for the purchase prize and said: “We trust you will understand the safety and satisfaction of our customers is our highest priority. Thanks for shopping at Amazon.com.”
Amazon has faced multiple lawsuits seeking to hold it responsible for damage or injuries caused by defective products sold by third parties, including ones based overseas in China, with most courts concluding it is not a “seller” under various states’ product liability laws. But a few rulings have gone the other way and have allowed Amazon to be sued.
Both Pennsylvania’s and Ohio’s top courts are currently considering the issue, and federal appeals courts are weighing cases under California and Texas law.
The case decided Thursday drew friend-of-the-court briefs from plaintiff lawyer groups and corporate groups.
The ruling comes as California lawmakers weigh legislation that would put Amazon and other operators of online marketplaces on equal footing under the state’s strict liability law.
Updated at 5:26 p.m. Aug. 13, 2020
— City News Service and Reuters contributed to this report.