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Oberdorf v. Amazon: Holding Online Sellers Responsible for Injuries Caused by Defective Products

Posted by Benjamin R. Zimmermann

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Ben litigates personal injury cases, with an emphasis in the areas of defective products, medical malpractice, construction site accidents, and premises liability. Ben’s case wins have been upheld all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Meet Benjamin

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On January 12, 2015, Heather Oberdorf was walking her dog on a retractable leash that she bought on Amazon. Then her dog lunged forward, the leash catapulted back, and Heather became permanently blind in her left eye. Facing a life-altering injury, Oberdorf sued Amazon under theories of products liability and negligence in selling the defective leash.

Amazon defended the case by claiming that it was not a “seller” of the leash under Pennsylvania’s product liability law that holds sellers of defective products responsible for the injuries they cause.  Amazon also argued that the Communications Decency Act (CDA) prohibited Oberdorf from holding Amazon responsible for information published about the product on its website, since it was merely a host for that information.  

A federal district court in Pennsylvania initially took Amazon’s position that the claims against Amazon were barred, but the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding that Amazon could be held liable as a seller of a defective product. The Court did, however, find that the CDS barred any claims, such as failure to warn or instruct, based on the published material on Amazon’s website.  

Decisions like Oberdorf are important to protect consumers from defective products sold through online sellers like Amazon. As the Court pointed out, many products sold on Amazon are sold through hard-to-identify sellers, often in foreign countries. If Amazon is not treated as a seller and held responsible for defective products it sells and distributes, then (a) many consumers like Oberdorf will be unable to hold anyone accountable for the serious injuries defective products cause; and (b) there will be absolutely no incentive for Amazon and retailers like it to monitor the safety of products they sell.  For Amazon—which stores, ships, bills, and profits off of every item sold on its website—to claim that it is not a seller of those products is a fairly transparent attempt to avoid responsibility for products it sells, rather than standing behind them. The Oberdorf decision helps to avoid such an unfair result.   

In 2011, Sugarman obtained a $20 million verdict for the wrongful death of a young mother who used a defective pool slide sold through Amazon by Toys R Us. While Amazon was no longer a defendant in the case at the time of trial, the case had some issues similar to the Oberdorf case: A very dangerous product, sold by a shadowy Chinese company, for which its sellers did not want to take responsibility.   

Most everyone has enjoyed the convenience of Amazon and the services it provides.  But when it sells defective products, it should be held liable just like any other seller, and cases like Oberdorf ensure that it will be.  

For assistance with injuries involving consumer products, contact us. SUGARMAN’s personal injury attorneys have experience in product liability cases. Call us at 617-542-1000, email info@sugarman.com, or fill out a Contact Form.